Promising Young Woman: A Bold, Smart, and Stylish Debut
Emerald Fennell’s (of Killing Eve, The Crown, and Call the Midwife fame) Promising Young Woman is a candy-colored confection with a heart of bitter arsenic. Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra Thomas, the titular young woman, a thirty year old who has dropped out of her promising educational trajectory due to an initially-unspecified sexual trauma. While her days involve living with her parents and working as a barista, at night she prowls bars and clubs as a vigilante, allowing Good Guys to take her home when she acts too drunk to be out and about. Cassandra wants to be proven wrong on each occasion, but as her little notebook of results shows, the men she encounters can never just act with integrity, leading her to continue her crusade.
Like her namesake, Cassandra acts as a prophet of the unfairness and cost inherent in the messed up gender dynamics of he-said-she-said when men get to be “innocent until proven guilty” and women have to just deal with it. Also like the original Cassandra, this Cassie is cursed to have no one believe her. When her truth is discounted to deadly effect, Casandra takes up the mantle of a different Greek mythology: that of the Erinye, or Fury. Like those mythological harbingers of bad fortune (traditionally depicted as scorned women), Cassie is blamed by the men she entices (“Why do [women] have to ruin everything,” whines one stymied bro). Not that Cassie necessarily has the moral high ground, despite the ridiculous protestations of innocence or blame by the men caught in her trap; each time Cassie takes down a would-be rapist or apologist or enabler, the audience is left wondering exactly how far her revenge goes, forcing us to reckon with our own glee at her actions: how far is too far? When do we have to stop rooting for her?
The film offers more than just a casual story of revenge, though. When a charming former classmate (a sweetly dorky Bo Burnham) re-enters her life, Cassandra is tempted to reconcile with the world and move forward, to give up her after-hours excursions. Ultimately, though, Cassie’s banked anger becomes incendiary, leading to a tragic but cathartic ending that elicited a spontaneous round of applause in my theatre during its Sundance festival run.
One of the strengths of the movie, and also the vehicle of one of its biggest themes, is the visuals. The production design and cinematography demonstrate more than attractive design, they allow the color palette, costumes, and shots to emphasize exactly how Mulligan’s character performs various forms of femininity in ways most women will intrinsically recognize. For instance, despite her 30-something age, Cassie “performs” feminine innocence in her light pink bathrobes, demure pastel day dresses, a rainbow manicure, and matching ribbons in her hair. She lives at home, works a typically teenaged sort of job, and doesn’t tell her parents or friends about her extracurricular activities. While the childishness of her aesthetic and lifestyle is likely related to the trauma that affected her and her childhood best friend, she is also performing the type of femininity that keeps women safe in a world where victims still get asked what they were wearing, what they were drinking, whether they were “asking for it” in some way. When she wears this guise, the camera shoots her in a hagiographic light: the curved tops of the Rococo couches on which she sits are angels’ wings, the fresco on the wall of her café frames her head like a halo, and she is imbued with the same divine light as in The Passion of Joan of Arc when shot from below.
In contrast to the “Virgin Mary” she performs in the daylight, when Cassie is on the prowl she is purposefully adopting “the whore” — “asking for it” by dressing in short skirts, sprawling appealingly in unbuttoned business suits, and, ultimately, donning an actual (“sexy”) Halloween costume to pursue her revenge. Here, the performance is more overt, with Cassie copying YouTube tutorials for “blowjob lips” (with a delightful cameo by the director) and artfully smearing her makeup, tousling her hair, and slurring her words to put on a literal performance to lure in her targets. The shots in these scenes are also wider, showing the entire row of seats at a crowded bar, a long stretch of empty couch, the street outside a crowded club, giving Cassie a stage on which to act her role of “prospective victim” for both the audience and her would-be attackers. The religious imagery comes back here, too, though on whose side divinity lies is more equivocal. A body sprawled out on a bed mimics the crucifixion, chiaroscuro lighting in seedy clubs references Renaissance paintings of martyrs (sensationalized and eroticized even back then), and Cassie walks barefoot on concrete and rocks in a penitential pilgrimage towards what she perhaps hopes is an ultimate salvation.
While the film might get pigeonholed as a response to #MeToo, it is more than just a product of that movement. There is a deep truth on display beyond the “gotcha” moments (as deeply satisfying as it is to have a would-be rapist realize his target is not only not a victim, but indeed has the ability to turn the tables and victimize him) that explores not only what men have done but also the lengths to which women have gone and still go to protect themselves and how desperately skewed the burdens and perceptions are. While the tactics might not be exactly laudable, and some responses have been critical of its depiction of violence against women, the levity and lightness of much of the film acts more as cutting sarcasm, rather than ignoring the problematic nature of any character’s actions.
The subtlety of these choices, the stylishness of the design and shots, and the superbly effective needle drops make Fennell’s directorial debut a slick show regardless of content, and one of the year’s must-see films.