In her feature film debut PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN Director Emerald Fennell goes where it hurts and lets a self-confident young woman take revenge on the male world. What sounds like morbid exploitation cinema is smart and provocative thriller cinema that definitely needs to be talked about afterwards. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Promising Young Woman (UK/USA 2020)
During the day, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works a dreary job at the local coffee shop. But at night she goes around clubs and bars in seductive clothes to attract the attention of men. Because many, Cassie is sure, believe themselves to be decent, but under the right circumstances, they don’t hesitate to take advantage of helpless women. Admittedly, this pastime is not exactly what one would have expected from a highly intelligent young woman who once seemed to have a bright future ahead of her. But for Cassie, it’s all part of a voluntarily chosen mission. At the right moment, she turns the tables and lets the supposed cavaliers feel firsthand that they should treat women – regardless of whether they are sober or intoxicated – with respect.
Director and screenwriter Emerald Fennell makes no secret of her awareness that her debut, Promising Young Woman, will be talked about. There are already plenty of films in which a film character takes revenge (bloody) for the pain he has inflicted, and since the topic of revenge is one that is still subject to a heated moral debate today, pop culture articles about it often end up in the headlines more quickly than films in which It’s just a little more brutal than in mainstream cinema. But in her film, Fennell doesn’t just tell another of the numerous revenge fates, but rather, together with her (anti-?)hero Cassandra, strikes a blow against the patriarchal structures of our society. It is not for nothing that the film title “Promising Young Woman” is derived from a newspaper quote from 2016, in which the student Brock Turner, who was convicted of multiple sexual assaults on women, was referred to by the press as “Promising Young Man” (translated: promising young man) despite his actions man). This anecdote perfectly captures the bitterly ironic tone of Fennell’s script, without which a film like “Promising Young Woman” would have become either cheap exploitation cinema or a one-dimensional indictment of the male world itself. But none of that happened: Carey Mulligan’s outstanding one-woman show is a cool, calculating neo-noir thriller that is nowhere near as eccentric as the trailer makes it out to be.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) confronts the male world with her wrongdoing.
In general, the marketing of “Promising Young Woman” is such a thing. It is not for nothing that the USA press release warns that the sexual violence discussed in the film may have a disturbing effect on some viewers. The USA poster catchphrase “Revenge was never so sweet!” On the other hand, it is more reminiscent of revenge thrillers like “96 Hours”, “Peppermint” or “Death Wish”. Now it doesn’t necessarily have to be ruled out that a possible act of revenge occurs as a result of sexual violence – at least since Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” an entire horror film subgenre has emerged from this premise: “Rape and Revenge Movies”. What is crucial, however, is the tonality: And here Emerald Fennell ventures into bold, previously hardly explored territory. The theme of her film is society’s ignorance of sexual abuse and the resulting naturalness of tolerating it (hence the warning in the press release). In order to highlight this injustice in society, Fennell resorts to dazzling means (including, of course, Carey Mulligan in an almost caricature-like lead role – but only almost!), which definitely deserve the term “revenge film”. And yet none of this gets to the heart of the matter: “Promising Young Woman” lacks a crucial component of such a film: redemption.
“The theme of your film is society’s ignorance of sexual abuse and the resulting naturalness of tolerating it. In order to highlight this injustice in society, Fennell is now resorting to dazzling means.”
Of course, no filmmaker nowadays shouts that the main character of his/her film is finally in a good mood again thanks to revenge. Nevertheless, the cause of a retaliatory attack is usually presented so drastically beforehand (this is especially true for rape and revenge films) that the torment or even death of the targeted enemy figure automatically amounts to a kind of redemption for the audience. Films such as Denis Villeneuve’s masterful thriller drama “Prisoners”, on the other hand, make the moral pitfalls their main concern, but can hardly be understood as classic “revenge films”. In “Promising Young Woman” Emerald Fannell combines a bitter, lifelike motivation for revenge like in “Prisoners” and a tough protagonist with equally self-confident and tough methods of retribution like in “Peppermint” – and tells this story from the eyes of a woman who has this correlation actually incompatible things quarrel at any time. Carey Mulligan (“Suffragette”) is the heart of the film and gives tremendous emphasis to the filmmaker’s intentions with her morally torn performance. Although we don’t want to go into the exact motives of her actions, Mulligan manages from the start to compensate for the anger at the current state of affairs with her very own form of rebellion – but not without always pushing the boundaries of legality and morality Balancing justifiability. With her aloof attitude that is always superior to her surroundings, Mulligan’s Cassie is not a classic popular figure; on the contrary. The further “Promising Young Woman” progresses, the less tangible her character becomes and resorts to methods that go beyond the scope of “repaying like for like”. It’s as if Emerald Fannell wanted to maintain a basic distance from her main character, so that “Promising Young Woman” as a classic revenge film (also thanks to the lack of satisfaction) isn’t as fun as the poster might suggest.
In her job in a café, Cassie gets to know her customer Ryan (Bo Burnham) better and falls in love…
Nevertheless, it is immense pleasure to watch Cassie on her foray through a stylized, distorted image of our reality and to confront the men (but also women!) with their misconduct that maintains the patriarchal order. The fact that the smart young woman does not demonize the male gender as a whole (she is even allowed to fall in love in the course of the film!) and also makes people of her own gender aware of her misdeeds protects “Promising Young Woman” from the obvious danger of one-sided denigration; In advance, the film had to accept the accusation of being a “man-hater film” on social networks. But it’s not quite that simple. Emerald Fennell is far too precise in her observations of human (not male!) whims and habits for that. For example, her instructions to all the male actors in her film – all of whom were excellently cast according to their public image – were that they should all act as if they were the heroes of their own romantic comedy. And in fact: If you perceive unpleasant club situations, awkward flirts or even moments of unwanted physical confrontation as individual situations in a (no longer very current) romantic film, with the right script none of them would have been guilty of anything. Ultimately, the main accusation in “Promising Young Woman” is not directed at the men themselves, but rather at the world they have built and ordered, among other things, in which sexual abuse is often not punished and prosecuted as it would be appropriate under the circumstances.
“The fact that the smart young woman does not demonize the male gender as a whole and also exposes people of her own gender to their misdeeds protects “Promising Young Woman” from the obvious danger of one-sided denigration.”
In terms of staging, “Promising Young Woman” is characterized by Cassie’s ambivalent reality of life; is sometimes a rush soaked in either neon colors or sunlight and, without any audio-visual differences, at other times it seems almost documentary. Emerald Fennell, the Hollywood star Margot Robbie for her project (“I, Tonya”) was able to win as a producer ensures that you can never be sure of what you are seeing in her film. The perceptions of good and evil here also fundamentally have a double bottom, blur into one another and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Even the finale can be interpreted in many ways – and, like the entire film, will hopefully soon become part of passionate discussions.
Conclusion: With her stylishly directed thriller “Promising Young Woman,” debutant director Emerald Fennell gives the rape-and-revenge film genre a completely new spin. She follows a bitterly realistic accusation with an exalted act of revenge in which leading actress Carey Mulligan does not mutate into the classic heroic figure. The satisfaction doesn’t come from the film itself. The satisfaction is that this film even exists.
“Promising Young Woman” can be seen in USA cinemas from August 19, 2021.