Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman begins well, but is ultimately betrayed by a lack of courage. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Promising Young Woman
This review contains spoilers.
Promising Young Woman opens with a deliriously ecstatic sequence of a group of suits doing straight-men dirty dancing to the breathy autotune vocals of Charli XCX’s “Boys”. It’s a hilarious skewering of the sexist MTV videos of the 1980s, mocking the ugliness of the dancing while at the same time indulging in the objectification of the male body.
We cut from the dancing to a trio of suited men who are derisively assessing a young woman in the club who seems uncontrollably drunk. The most sympathetic of the men, Jerry – played by once-was-teen-heart-throb Adam Brody – offers to take the young woman home. Although she is clearly sodden, he takes sexual advantage of her. As he begins to go down on her, the woman sits up. She’s not drunk at all. Jerry – and we in the audience – realise that this night is not going to go as planned.
The young woman is Cassie, the heroine of the film’s title. Seven years ago, she was a medical student at an elite university who dropped out when her best friend, Nina, was raped by a fellow student while a group of his mates watched, egging him on. None of them were charged for the crime. As played by Carey Mulligan, Cassie is an avenging dark angel, who uses an old-fashioned teen diary to notch up the tally of her victims.
There are many delights to be had watching Promising Young Woman. The most exhilarating is to see Mulligan relishing a part that doesn’t fetishise passivity. The morning after her encounter with Jerry she walks down a street, licking what looks like blood off her hands and arms, and a trio of tradesmen start wolf-whistling. She stands, feet apart, looking at them with blazing scorn, and the men are cowed by her gaze. It’s funny and it’s powerful, and I hooted out loud in the cinema.
These opening scenes are virtuosic in their clarity. Of course, Me Too is a defining influence on this directorial debut by Briton Emerald Fennell. But Cassie is an archetype of the enraged, vengeful woman that goes all the way back to Kali and Hera. Cassie’s righteous fury also has echoes of one of the most powerful of mythological beings, that of Medea, who is prepared to kill her own children in order to make a man suffer for his oppression of her dignity and honour.
For the first half-hour of the film’s running time, Fennell’s choices as a director are unfaltering. She is grafting the mythological heft of Cassie’s revengeful vehemence to the tropes of the teen comedy, and her simultaneous indulgence in – and desecration of – romantic comedy is exhilarating. Fennell’s use of a pop culture too often slighted by male music and art critics is celebratory. The soundtrack is full of glorious girl-power anthems, and the colour scheme of the film is bright pastels and Day-Glo, a mash-up of queer pop influences: it pinches from Barbarella and the Nouvelle Vague, from Lady Gaga and K-pop. The art design also playfully pays homage to the Twilight and True Blood vampire series.
There are early indications that Fennell’s daring as a director is not going to be matched by her writing. She was the showrunner for television’s Killing Eve and, as with that series, the boldness of the concept is undermined by a tendency not to trust the audience to be fearless, a sense that the filmmaker is looking over her shoulder. The dialogue too often plays it safe, and the characters are too often crudely stereotypical.
The film’s almost hallucinatory mise en scène shifts when Cassie runs into Ryan, who was at university with Cassie and who is now a paediatrician. He is played by Bo Burnham, whose nerdish sweetness is disarming. The encounter prompts Cassie to go after three individuals whom she holds responsible for allowing the rapist to get away with the violation of her friend: a fellow female student (Alison Brie), who slut-shamed Nina; a school administrator, played by Connie Britton, who didn’t believe Nina’s version of events; and the rapist’s lawyer (Alfred Molina).
These three encounters are punctuated by visual notches on the screen that act as chapter headings. The framing in these scenes is formal and tight, the colours now muted and sombre. There is a gripping, dangerous moment when we believe that Cassie’s desire for vengeance will lead her to demand an equivalent violation to that which was suffered by Nina. It’s truly frightening, as it captures something of the inchoate rage that suffuses grief, and also often political demands for justice and reparation. The film takes us to the brink but then pulls back. Cassie’s violent revenge is revealed as fantastical. It’s as if Euripides had Medea only pretend to kill her children.
The most egregious episode is the one involving the lawyer. Molina plays the part as a man broken by the weight of the guilt he is carrying, begging Cassie to destroy him. But no amount of valour in the performance can redeem the vainglory of the conception. Are we truly meant to believe that the worst of human behaviour that a hard-nosed lawyer has seen has occurred on a university campus? The ridiculousness is compounded when Cassie’s response to his grovelling is to offer him absolution. Mulligan is truly awful in this scene, wooden and unconvincing. One senses that this isn’t the fault of the actor: Mulligan knows that this scene, playing Cassie as if the purpose of her wrath is to be morally edifying, is a betrayal of the character. She’s more courageous than the filmmakers.
These botched revenge scenes reveal Fennell’s lack of sophistication as a director. The austere set-ups are directly influenced by the icy classicism that Mary Harron brought to her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. As with that film, Fennell plays with the ambiguity of how much is fantasy and how much reality. I also gleaned the influence of Marleen Gorris’s astounding 1982 feminist film, A Question of Silence. In that film three women of vastly different class backgrounds, strangers to each other, murder a supercilious and casually sexist male shop attendant. As in Harron’s film, the violence is viscerally shocking, and also shockingly funny. The clinical detachment in these films doesn’t offer an out for the viewer, and the filmmakers trust the audience to intellectually engage with the feminist ideas being boldly and powerfully executed.
Fennell’s timidity as a scriptwriter is evident too in the scenes essaying the burgeoning affair between Cassie and Ryan. She does some lovely work here, evincing a real love for and respect for the conventions of the romantic comedy. I particularly liked a nerdy, charming scene where Ryan serenades Cassie in a pharmacy to a Paris Hilton track. But this sequence further betrays the enormity of Cassie’s grief and anger: its immaturity makes a nonsense of Cassie’s earlier rage. The audience is primed that Ryan, too, will be revealed as another failed and mendacious man, and when that scene arrives, it’s a relief.
Throughout Promising Young Woman, the nature of Cassie’s love for her friend is an unspoken tension. We never see Nina, only glimpse her in photographs of the two of them as young girls. Mulligan is so good at conveying the ferocity of her grief that it seems improbable that no one around her names the relationship as one of lesbian love. I suspect the reticence arises from one of the more troubling aspects of contemporary progressive politics: the fetishising of victimhood and suffering, which is almost an injunction to remain soldered to the traumas of one’s past. At one point, Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) gently suggests that it is time for Cassie to “grow up”. Yet growing up means asserting one’s sexuality. It means being adult.
The film’s penultimate scene is powerful, and the one moment when real violence doesn’t occur off-screen. Cassie pretends to be a stripper and gatecrashes the bucks party of the man who raped Nina. There’s genuine fear in this scene, where we are unsure of what violence Cassie will enact on the male body of the rapist. When the violence does come, its resolution is disturbing – both in its ferocity, and in the surprisingly intense performance given by Chris Lowell as the rapist.
Lowell offers us a glimpse of male entitlement – and rage at its challenge – that matches Mulligan’s wrath at the injustice of men’s power. One can only imagine how much more confronting – and funny – the film would have been if Lowell had played Ryan, with the ostensible love relationship revealing an equal menace to the pick-up scenes.
Promising Young Woman has a kind of happy ending, yet the masochistic sourness of the previous scene lingers. I felt the loss of the unapologetically ferocious Cassie who dominated the early scenes. Promising Young Woman is very much of its time – it’s scared of growing up. In the narrow worldview of this film, there is no happiness in adulthood, there is no sexuality that is liberating for a woman. The only choice is between perpetual girlhood or violent martyrdom.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "A failed promise".
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