Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual assault.
The following article contains major spoilers for Promising Young Woman.
It’s not often that I walk out of a film screening at a complete and utter loss. I usually have a kernel of an opinion one way or the other, often to be hammered out shortly upon reflection and discussion with friends.
With Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman I found myself at sea. It’s not that the film was bad (that would have been an opinion), it’s more that Promising Young Woman attempts to tackle one of the foremost issues of our time (if not of all time), and I’m not sure what it really has to say about it.
That issue, as is fairly evident from the trailer, is rape.
To be clear, as a film, much of Promising Young Woman works well. As a commentary on campus sexual assault, I think it wobbles. But, as a film: Carrie Mulligan and Bo Burnham are particularly dynamite. A sequence set to Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind is one of the best things I’ve seen on screen in years, and the twist involving Burnham’s character is a great one (even though a friend apparently “saw it coming a mile away”).
It also occurs to me to heap praise on the costume designers, set dressers, and those involved in crafting the film’s aesthetic. The girlishness of this world jars brilliantly against the story it tells. Casting a rape-revenge story in pastel pinks and blues provides much to chew on.
But this is where the wheels start to come off. To start with, (and here’s where the major spoilers begin), she doesn’t kill the men.
This may be a case of unfortunate marketing (because it sure looks as if she kills them from the trailer) but it’s also alluded to in the film itself. See: Cassie walking home with apparent blood dripping down her sleeve. Cassie counting off another victim in her diary. Cassie employing the services of a seeming hit-man.
Instead, she cavorts about town teaching so-called nice guys a gentle lesson. From her diary, she's been doing it awhile. And that, when expectations are reset and you realise this isn’t the feminist answer to Gone Girl, is still a great premise. Sure, it barely escalates, but it's certainly unique.
I think it's the ending where the engine stops completely.
If Cassie was going to kill anyone, it would have to be the last man, the worst man, the man who deserves it. Instead, he kills her. It’s truer to life, certainly, but it’s bleak as all hell, and it’s at this point that my thoughts on the film shrivelled up and fell away.
In many ways, the final few minutes brought up comparisons to Jordan Peele’s excellent directorial debut Get Out (again, spoilers follow). When, in Get Out’s final minutes, a cop car pulls up, I remember feeling aghast. I remember thinking I get the point they’re making but I so don’t want this ending! And then, in a twist upon a twist, Peele doesn’t do that ending. The audience gets the point, and then they get the triumph.
Promising Young Woman is all point and no triumph.
In fact, the film's only triumph comes in the form of a last-minute arrest, begging the question: what is this film's stance on the systemic response to violence against women? For 95% of the film's run, it appears to believe one thing (every authority figure in this film is hopeless and unhelpful, despite mountains of evidence) and yet, in the final moments, the police do the right thing. What is Promising Young Woman saying about the police force? Does it believe the police will jump into action when provided irrefutable evidence? Having personally witnessed the police do nothing about a West Auckland Rape Ring (which they knew about for two years) the thesis makes me queasy.
What I do know is that women directors and women writers must be given more opportunities to explore these and other topics through film. Their ideas need to be green-lit and their projects need to be financed. Despite my uncertainty with this film, I can’t wait to see what Emerald Fennell does next. Women’s stories need to be told, especially those dark and difficult ones. I just hope that one day soon, both in real life and on film, we can start to see some justice.
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