Every week Cassie sits at the back of a crowded bar and pretends to be too drunk to stand. Every week a ‘nice guy’ approaches her and offers to take her home. And every week this ‘nice guy’ turns out to be not so nice after all. Despite its pastel-coloured aesthetic, Emerald Fennell’s revenge fantasy highlights the dark shades of female experience.
Released last Saturday on Sky Cinema, Fennell’s cinematic debut snapped up two awards at this month’s BAFTAs and has been nominated for a further five academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. Despite this, the film has divided critics and viewers alike. Unsurprisingly, its derision of the ‘nice guy’ façade has led to outrage from the ‘#notallmen’ brigade who have taken to Twitter to complain of the picture’s supposed demonisation of men. Yet the complaints of male critics seem to miss the film’s underlying message. Far from glamourising a revenge-based justice system, Promising Young Woman works to expose the male – and, indeed, the female – attitudes, actions and prejudices that continue to uphold rape culture.
The film follows Cassie as her revenge quest reaches its climax. Hearing that the man responsible for the rape and suicide of her childhood friend has returned to town, Cassie sets out to attain justice. Although Cassie’s dark humour and high fashion make her reminiscent of Fennell’s Villanelle (the psychopathic assassin that Fennell penned for the second season of BBC drama Killing Eve), Cassie is an infinitely more human and sympathetic character: less good girl gone bad, more smart girl driven mad. Carey Mulligan disappears behind Cassie’s blonde bangs and clipped American accent, drawing out the quiet anger that lurks beneath Cassie’s bright wardrobe and withdrawn wit to remind the audience that this is a character derailed by trauma.
Slightly less convincing – though perhaps for good reason – is Bo Bunham’s portrayal of Ryan: the paediatrician and male saviour that interrupts Cassie’s pursuit of revenge. Ryan’s character is one of understated significance, illuminating Cassie’s capacity for compassion and feeling and, crucially, allowing for the film’s revival of Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit ‘Stars Are Blind.’ Burnham’s Ryan is a nice guy on a knife edge, however, and anyone familiar with the comedian’s work can only be unsettled to see him attempt to act out the role of romantic hero.
Yet, Promising Young Woman appears to have been purposefully constructed to unsettle. The film exposes the extent to which friends, bystanders, educational boards and legal institutions are as culpable to rape culture as sexual predators. Most disturbingly, the film stresses that male sympathy shapes society’s response to female injustice. ‘What would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?’, asks the film’s university authority. ‘I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, because innocent until proven guilty’: a seemingly sensible policy that Fennell’s picture exposes as exceedingly problematic.
Of course, there are elements in Promising Young Woman that are problematic in themselves. Most notably, the film’s predominantly white cast and Laverne Cox’s confinement to the sassy black friend stereotype detracts from the film’s radicalism. Cox’s Gail joins Jordan Greene’s traumatised defence lawyer and Molly Shannon’s bereaved Mother as one among the many characters that Fennell leaves disappointingly underdeveloped. The film’s final veering towards a partially reconciliatory ending is also somewhat disappointing given the narrative’s potential to conclude in poignant tragedy.
Overall, however, the merits of Fennell’s picture greatly outweigh its flaws. Fennell’s film does not encourage women to set out, scalpels in hand, to wreak their own sexual justice. Instead, Promising Young Woman, inadvertently released to coincide with the discourses surrounding female freedoms that have followed the murder of Sarah Everard, serves as a reminder that society’s outlook towards, and reactions to, rape and sexual violence are in need of radical reform. As the picture’s pop-inspired score reminds us, society’s sexual outlook is essentially toxic. Fennell’s Promising Young Woman seeks to respond to, rather than resolve, a suffocating rape-culture that continues to thrive.
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