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Non-Review Review: Promising Young Woman

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Promising Young Woman is a deeply uncomfortable watch. As it should be.

The basic premise of Emerald Fennell’s theatrical debut is decidedly thorny. Cassandra is a thirty-year-old woman who spends her weekends going to bars and acting so drunk that she can barely stand. Inevitably, a “nice guy” arrives to volunteer to help. He usually bundles her into the back of a taxi and takes her back to his place. Then, things get very uncomfortable – particularly when they realise that Cassandra is nowhere near as incapacitated as she appears to be. It’s a hell of a hook.

Promising Young Woman is the kind of film that is going to generate lots and lots of “discourse.” It will stoke strong opinions. It will spark uncomfortable conversations. It is an incredibly loaded film. All of this makes Fennell’s accomplishment all the more impressive. Promising Young Woman is a remarkably confident and assured debut feature, a film which navigates an almost impossibly fraught subject with a surprising amount of charm and wit. Promising Young Woman is heartbreaking and hilarious, raw and riotous, often pivoting between extremes in the space of a single scene. It’s a deft balancing act.

However, the most remarkable thing about Promising Young Woman isn’t just the way that Fennell manages all these tensions within the film. Promising Young Woman manages to create a palpable and compelling tension with the audience – a perfectly calibrated push-and-pull that knows exactly which buttons to push and when, for maximum effect. Promising Young Woman is a film that challenges its audience as much as its characters, and that is what makes it such a striking piece of film-making.

Note: It is probably best to see Promising Young Woman as blind as possible, without any real foreknowledge of what the film is doing or how it does it. This review will not go into too much depth, but discussing the film means discussing some of those mechanics. Consider this a light spoiler warning, and an unqualified recommendation.

The most immediately compelling thing about Promising Young Woman is the way the film leans into ambiguity. This ambiguity isn’t just moral ambiguity, although there is a lot of that. Instead, Promising Young Woman is structured and paced so as to creating deliberate lacunas in the plotting. There is a lot of deliberate negative space in terms of how Promising Young Woman unfolds. Several key scenes end on an ominous note, only for the movie to pick up with Cassie at a significantly later point. The film always eventually reveals what happened in that space, but the ambiguity is key.

To pick an obvious example, the film opens with Cassie having a late-night encounter with a nice guy named Jerry at a seedy bar. Jerry presents himself as a well-meaning dude. He is introduced talking to his colleagues about the need to operate a more inclusive corporate policy so that their female co-workers don’t feel excluded. Spotting Cassie across the bar, Jerry steps in to help the seemingly drunken woman. He takes her back to his place. He begins to undress her. She opens her eyes. She sits up. “I said, what the f&!k are you doing?” she demands. He stares back, frozen like a deer in the headlights.

Promising Young Woman cuts the scene there, joining Cassie on her walk home the following morning. The camera pans up her stocking-clad legs. There looks to be a blood stain on one of them, not that Cassie seems too bothered. She is too busy enjoying a street hotdog, the ketchup oozing out between her fingers. The image is deliberately and striking ambiguous. Is that blood on Cassie’s clothes that she is disguising with the hotdog? Or is it simply ketchup that she was too tired to properly clean up? Promising Young Woman eventually reveals exactly what happened with Jerry, but not for twenty minutes or so.

The beauty of Promising Young Woman derives from the fact that Fennell understands the power of those twenty minutes. The audience has to sit with that uncertainty as the film unfolds. The audience has to process the evidence in front of them, without a clear-cut answer. It is a pointed analogy in a movie that is explicitly about rape culture, and which is subsequently revealed to be rooted in the aftermath of a college trauma involving the brutal sexual assault of a young woman so drunk that her testimony was discounted.

Even ignoring the manner in which Fennell shrewdly allows form to follow function, these narrative ambiguities lend the movie a surprising power over its audience. The audience is forced to fill these gaps with their imagination, and this creates a compelling tension. The audience is invited to wonder what Cassie has done and – flowing from that – how those possibilities would shape their understanding of and empathy for her as a character. Promising Young Woman invites the audience to ask themselves questions about their assumptions, what their expectations are and where their sympathies lie.

This is where Promising Young Woman gets particularly thorny and deliberately abrasive. Watching the film, it is quite easy to see what sequences will generate the largest amount of discussion, and perhaps deservedly so. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Cassie employs the threat or possibility of violence (occasionally even explicitly sexual violence) against the people who find themselves in her path. The movie makes a number of very shrewd and calculated decisions in these sequences, designed to push particular buttons about audience sympathy and expectations.

There are several aspects to this. The most obvious is that these calculated decisions all feel entirely in-character. As written by Fennell and portrayed by Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman never loses sight of Cassie as a character. She feels incredibly well-realised, and all of her decisions flow organically from the film’s understanding of her. Indeed, the film’s central unspoken tension with regards to Cassie is the extent to which her actions are a form of penitence, a reflection of her own sense of guilt and her own self-destructive impulses. Cassie pushes herself in dangerous directions consistently and repeatedly.

The other interesting aspect is the way in which Promising Young Woman is less interested in simply offering a gender-swapped riff on the classic “rape revenge” narrative template than it is in actually exploring more complicated questions like complicity and responsibility. While Cassie’s weekend activities are a recurring thread, the narrative arc of Promising Young Woman is built around a very specific incident from Cassie’s college days, and her efforts to hold people to account for something horrific that happened but was never resolved.

Notably, Promising Young Woman makes a point to push Cassie into confrontations with two women involved the scandal. Alison Brie plays Madison, the party girl who has become a stay-at-home mother to twins. Connie Britton plays Dean Winters, the college administrator whose investigation into the assault found nothing wrong. Even beyond Madison and Winters, Alfred Molina plays Jordan, the lawyer whose firm specialises in protecting perpetrators of such assaults. He boasts about how he received a bonus for every case that he cleared, and how the firm had a contractor explicitly employed to victim blame.

Promising Young Woman does eventually tackle the parties directly responsible for the assault, but it is keenly interested in the social and legal systems that protected them – in particular how these systems make women complicit in sexual violence. Promising Young Woman very consciously pushes this idea in deliberately uncomfortable directions with Cassie’s vengeance on both Madison and Winters, and the nature of her retribution seems certain to generate a lot of digital ink.

However, Promising Young Woman gets away with this for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, Fennell knows exactly what she is doing and what buttons she is pushing. The audience’s discomfort at these sequences is entirely deliberate, and extends beyond facile dramatic irony. The film understands that it is the uncertainty and ambiguity that makes these cases so uncomfortable, and Promising Young Woman leans into that. The film makes great use of negative space within the narrative, inviting its audience to populate it, and then inviting them to interrogate how they filled it.

More than that, Promising Young Woman is very careful to avoid pointing Cassie’s quest as a fist-pumping empowerment narrative. Promising Young Woman is sympathetic to Cassie and her quest, but not unreservedly so. The film repeatedly has sympathetic characters urge Cassie to abandon a path that is (literally and self-evidently) self-destructive. The film’s most genuinely sympathetic characters include Cassie’s father Tom, played by Clancy Brown, who clearly wants nothing more than for his daughter to move on with her life. Even those other people whose lives were shattered by the inciting trauma want Cassie to get past it.

At its heart, Promising Young Woman is a story about empathy. It is about who receives empathy and who is denied it, about how far an individual’s compassion or sympathy will extend. Cassie’s central thesis – and one that the film itself supports – is that people are much better at extending empathy to themselves and those closest to them than they are to strangers. Promising Young Woman repeatedly suggests that there is a presumed empathy in these cases, an unexamined weighting of assumed sympathy. “Being accused of something like this,” one man gasps, “it’s every man’s worst nightmare.”

Naturally, Cassie shoots back, “Can you imagine what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” Repeatedly, Promising Young Woman falls back on the familiar refrain that holding men to account for such behaviour is unfair. “Why do you guys have to ruin everything?” whines Paul after he is called out for genuinely creepy behaviour. “Why are you doing this to me?” demands Neil after taking a seemingly drunk Cassie back to his place. “I’m a nice guy.” Cassie pointedly retorts, “Are you? Really?” (She does concede, “You didn’t try to have sex with me while I was unconscious.” The bar is apparently very low.)

Again, that tension between Promising Young Woman and its audience comes into play. The film (correctly) assumes that the audience will feel some discomfort at the ambiguous nature of Cassie’s retribution towards men like Jerry, particularly before Promising Young Woman explicitly reveals what happened to him. However, Promising Young Woman cannily argues, is that discomfort is disproportionate? Is the audience’s unease with the possibility of brutal extrajudicial retribution against Jerry greater than its unease with his attempts to have sex with a seemingly drunken woman actively asserting her lack of consent?

Promising Young Woman is elevated by a sharp sense of humour and a wry wit. Despite its subject matter, Promising Young Woman is consistently and engagingly funny. It is wryly observed, and populated with disarmingly charming characters. Mulligan is phenomenal in the lead role, but is ably supported by a cast who do excellent work soften the film’s rough edges when it needs them to and sharpening them to a fine point when the situation calls for it. Bo Burnham deserves special mention as Ryan, Cassie’s old classmate who desperately wants to forge an emotional connection with her, if she’ll let him.

Fennell also has a sharp eye as director, working with Benjamin Kracun. Promising Young Woman looks striking. The film is often framed symmetrically and shot on steady cam, to create a rather cold and dispassionate aesthetic that exists at odds with the heightened subject matter. However, Cassie herself frequently shifts within the frame, creating a sense that she herself is off-centre and off-balance even as the world around her seems carefully and immaculately designed. It feels strangely appropriate that Promising Young Woman employs a gaze that evokes the unsettling focus of directors like Kubrick or Fincher.

Promising Young Woman also makes excellent use of colour. The film begins with repeated stark contrasts between red and white, capturing a tension between the feeling of blood flowing and the veneer of purity; the slow camera pan up Cassie’s white top, the full glass of red wine clumsily spilled across the white table cloth, the faux sterility of wholesome coffee shops and diners. However, as Cassie opens herself to a life beyond that juxtaposition, as Ryan gently tries to break through, more conventionally gendered softer shades begin to seep in; baby blues and pastel pinks. The climax inevitably brings those sharp contrasts back.

Promising Young Woman also has the luxury of a killer soundtrack that Fennell employs to great effect. There are number of sequences in Promising Young Woman that simply would not work without the skill of Fennell’s carefully calculated needle drops. This true of big thematic moments, like the climactic march set to an orchestral version of Toxic. However, it is also true of smaller and more low key moments, like an impromptu Magic Mike XXL tribute act in the aisles of a pharmacy set to Paris Hilton.

Promising Young Woman is a staggering accomplishment, and one of the best films of the year so far.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

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