Director: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge
Part of the established contract of rape-revenge cinema is the catharsis offered when the attackers are confronted and justice is meted out. Having endured the ordeal of her experiences, having suffered with her, we’re to be sated by this reprisal, by her violence. In the process, she is vindicated and so are we. Balance is restored. She can now begin to heal; a phoenix rising from the flames. And we can feel better about having gone through it all with her… right?
Emerald Fennell’s divisive feature Promising Young Woman is not a rape-revenge film, not in the conventional sense. But it is a frank response to a culture of hypocrisy and double-standards, especially taking aim at the ‘nice guys’ who pride themselves on a veneer of tenderness only to enact the predatory behaviours of their shittier brethren as soon as the opportunity arises. It exists in response to the #MeToo movement, it feels inspired by it, and it quite deliberately doesn’t provide viewers with a comfortable or even likable experience (presented, thought it may be, as a neon-pink mainstream commodity).
In the process, Fennell has put herself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Some will inevitably critisise her film for attacking men (good god, really?), others will decry it for not going far enough; for not providing those visceral moments of Schadenfreude that rape-revenge films supposedly ‘owe’ us (don’t let those people near Isabella Eklof’s Holiday for goodness sake).
Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a medical school dropout cresting 30, who lives with her parents and works at a coffee shop. She spends her Friday nights in tacky clubs, pretending to be hammered to draw out the ‘nice guys’ who’ll offer to help her… only to prey on their newly acquired easy target. Cassandra will then snap out of her head-lolling reverie, often to the horror of her circumspect prince charmings. A look at her private journal tells us this is something she’s been doing for a while, and back story reveals that this project is a kind of revenge, albeit revenge-by-proxy. Cassandra’s best friend Nina took her own life following an ill-fated drunken night at college. Cassandra has cast herself as an avenging angel.
Fennell doesn’t give us the satisfaction of seeing Cassandra’s full follow-through. The film’s cold-open in which she and Adam Brody’s Jerry ensnare one another cuts to the next morning and a knowing gag involving dripping ketchup. His exact fate is left open for us to ponder. For some, that denial is a half-measure, and Fennell’s subtractions hurt the film and her point. But Fennell isn’t here to quench anyone’s blood lust. Those films exist elsewhere already. Promising Young Woman questions Cassandra as much as it asks us to root for her, while ultimately casting her a person driven to a course of action by a callously indifferent patriarchal stronghold.
Some of Fennell’s choices feel a little gauche (a boy-band called Wet Dreams?), but these affectations also feels intentional; complimentary to the film’s candy-coloured iteration of reality. Comedian and Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham is savvily cast as a potential romantic interest for Cassandra. Throughout their faltering courtship we’re provoked into wondering what – if anything – makes him more trustworthy than the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing that Cassie weeds out of bars and clubs; an insight into how guarded women have to be when molestation is so prevalent in our culture. Promising Young Woman invites us to contemplate how tiring that is. Burnham’s Ryan is painted as the epitome of non-threatening (dancing to Paris Hilton in the aisles of a pharmacy, being the first to say “I think I love you”), but he might “Not all men” us at a moment’s notice. There’s tension there.
Mulligan – also a producer – is fantastic. In what can feel like an arch piece, she maintains a sense of truth about her character; a totem for the world-weariness that Fennell’s film is eager to communicate. And not just thanks to the actions of so many half-cut guys. At home, Cassandra’s well-meaning parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) constantly maintain an aura of passive-aggressive concern that their daughter isn’t fulfilling template societal milestones. Their joy when she brings home Ryan is almost as overbearing as their clipped criticisms at other times. Cassandra carries these crosses and Mulligan manifests them with her dry delivery, proffering us a person surviving on bitterness, self-righteousness and migraine-behind-the-eyes resignation.
For those who want to see Promising Young Woman manifested with more fury, there are more direct classics out there. Ms. 45. American Mary. Fennell’s film isn’t the same thing. It’s glossier and relatively more palatable, sure, but it’s also more tragic. Something that’s certainly represented in its dark third act turn. In spite of appearances there is no winning in this movie. And that’s the frustration that Fennell is getting at.
When she does present us violence, it is not the violence we expected and it is not the violence we wanted. Nobody is sated and that is deliberate. Fennell walks a tonal tightrope of comedy and darkly pathetic masculine vulnerability as we’re left feeling adrift. I do take some issue with the very end of the film, which will continue to provoke discussion as its lifespan continues. But like it or not, this is the kind of energised cinema that we ought to be demanding. That it’s in the awards mix this year is a credit to the finesse that Fennell and her cast and crew bring to the production. If one wants to condemn Promising Young Woman for softening a tough subject for mainstream consumption, one must also consider that bringing men’s roles in society to heel is an ambitious and overdue enterprise that Fennell’s film – regardless of your reaction – encourages directly.