Promising Young Woman (2021) Emerald Fennell
Another entry into the growing female-directed revenge films, Promising Young Woman packs a hefty punch and offers something much more astonishing than your usual vengeance fare. It's a film that took my breath away, had me squirming in my seat, and still, has me mulling over its ideas, themes, and situations. To call it a confrontational film would be an understatement. The film is a shock to the system and one which I enjoyed beyond measure.
Unlike most revenge films this one doesn't involve the central character exacting retribution on persons who have committed a crime against her, nor does it see her vengeance meted in a violent manner. This film is in fact notable for its absence of (onscreen) violence, with one devastating scene towards the film astonishing denouement.
Instead, and like so much of this film meticulously intentional, the victim is never met, and her fate never explicitly learned. She is, and the victim is a woman, notable for her complete absence from the film. One of the many unfair narratives the film seeks to expose and explore through its story.
Like so many revenge films this one involves sexual violence. We learn during the film that the event was recorded, but we never see it. Instead, we see the effect the knowledge of its film has on a number of people. We start by meeting Cassie at a nightclub. She is completely drunk, unaware of her surroundings, and barely able to hold herself up. Three gentlemen at the bar discuss her predicament. Initially, the discussion appears to be showing concern, but this effortless, and easily slips into judgement, and then finally exploitation. This becomes a recurring concept in the film. How supposedly nice, concerned guys transition to sexual predators, noticeable to those paying attention, but apparently oblivious of their own transgression.
Cassie, played with career-best perfection by Carey Mulligan, is playing a trick on these guys. By faking paralytic inebriation she allows them to exploit and take advantage of her up to a point. She offers them plenty of opportunities to do the right thing, but invariably it is only when their behavior is challenged that they retreat from their position. The film is exceptional in its handling of these situations. The dialogue is note-perfect, and Emerald Fennell manages to convey so much with just a simple throwaway line; both about the imbalance in gender relationships in society, but also in how men feel about both the growing empowerment of women and their perceptions about how women are theirs by right. Secondly, Mulligan's performance and the performances of the male actors in these scenes are fantastic. One misstep in performance, in how the scene unfolds and the film, would tonally veer in the wrong waters. It's a delicate tiptoeing Fennell and her cast achieve in a film that flagrantly challenges the audience tolerance of tonal shifts. A scene, and the film, can shift on a sixpence between awkwardly comical to deeply unnerving and sinister. It is perhaps the film's greatest achievement.
Cassie's behavior has not gone unnoticed. Her parents are deeply concerned about how a promising young medical student could drop out and end living at home and working in a coffee shop at the age of 30. Her boss is equally concerned but wants her to get out and meet someone. All seem to know, understand and empathise with the tragedy she's so clearly still battling through. Her best friend, Nina Fisher, who she has known most of her life, and who was a fellow medical student (notably top of her class) was raped by a fellow medical school student. In Nina's absence, we are left to imagine the worst, and its explains Cassie's checking out from society and her vigilante nightly escapades to teach men lessons.
Her vengeance towards men steps up a notch when she discovers, whilst dating a former fellow student, Ryan, that the rapist is due to get married. This revelation makes her concoct an exquisitely executed revenge plot against those she blames for both Nina's rape, and the consequential after-events.
Once Cassie's plan commences the film elevates itself to something truly exceptional. Each person who Cassie blames for having some part of Nina's assault becomes the victim of a thoroughly well thought out form of revenge. None of these acts are violent. But they are delicately apt in their design and execution. Rather than descending in mindless, cathartic violence for which the genre is famous, the film instead does two things. Firstly, it exposes the structures, mentalities and systems in place that allow a victim to be swallowed up and destroyed by sexual violence, whilst at the same time a perpetrator can shrug off the accusations and build a successful life.
It does this by examining those involved in such an act, from the actual rapist, to the friends, colleagues and members of institutions which ensure this system is overly weighted in favour of men, and ergo the perpetrators. Benefit of doubt of a phrase used at one point. And its shocking when heard. It's also shocking when the character who utters the words realising how such actions make them complicit in the act. How thinking the best of someone is exactly the mentality that allows such acts to be committed, and go unpunished.
In another act of revenge, Cassie picks on a friend, who at the time of the crime, didn't stick by her friend, instead using her previous drunken behaviour as a excuse to nullify the claims of non-consensual sex. It's an age-old stereotype that women still seem incapable of shedding. The fact that she was very drunk, is flirtatious and sleeps around appears, even in the eyes of some women, the film claims, to make them exempt from certain allegations made after the fact. Can you imagine the punishment Cassie delivers to this so-called "old friend". After a lunch meeting, the friend wakes up in a hotel with a strange man, with no memory of what happened post-lunch. The film keeps us hanging onto the lengths to which Cassie seems to go, but she makes her point, vividly and emphatically.
Usually in revenge film the denoument sees the victim or the avenger, come face to face with the perpetrator, and Promising Young Woman is no different. The film fully conforms to genre tropes in the its final act. Up to a point. In truth the film teases it's audience, hinting at the expected, and often craved catharsis, but instead delivers something much more truthful, painful, shocking and ultimately desparing. This being a revenge film there is a final sting in the tale, some my argue undermines Fennell's big emotional gut punch, but it doesn't. The film holds true to the realities it's attacking. And that moment, which is one of the most uncomfortable moments I've had watching a film is a very long plays out in a single, unedited take. It reminds you in a very visceral way of what it might be like to be that situation. To be helpless and know that nothing is coming to save you. Whilst watching I contrived an ending to the scene which, had it arrived would have undermined the entire film and its conviction. Thankfully, much to my discomfort, that moment never came. Fennell's resolve is much stronger than mine, and for this creative decisions that film is still haunting me, and will continue to haunt me for weeks.
Promising Young Woman is a masterpiece. A meticulously written, directed and acted film which explores and attacks a society and culture that still leans too heavily towards men over women, both in the extreme space of rape, but also in the systemic sexism that engulfs us all. Fennell's film will be picked over for years to come, and should, by rights, attain a iconic, landmark reputation as a film which boldly, confidently and with a conviction that can be admired tackled these issues head on and delivered something truly unique in cinema.