by Kylee Webb
With the genius portrayal of Cassie Thomas by Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman readily proves itself as the sharpest film of this awards season…
If you ever wanted every single question answered about the nature of American culture when it comes to the issue of sexual assault, then look no further than Emerald Fennell’s astonishing debut. Promising Young Woman is not merely a rape-revenge flick designed to rain punitive justice on perpetrators and accomplices of sexual misconduct. No, it’s also a cinematic inquisition; it takes every sort of “What If?” and dashes them away with every biting line of dialogue.
Promising Young Woman surrounds Cassandra Thomas, a former medical student who drops out after her best friend Nina is sexually assaulted. When Cassanda’s not working part-time at a coffee shop, she goes to a club where she acts too drunk to stand and waits to see which “nice guy” will take her home. Once they do, they find themselves getting the fright of their lives. However, this scorekeeping proves not to be enough for her when a person from her past resurfaces and reminds her of the Moby Dick she never harpooned.
With the cinematography executed with symmetrical finesse by Benjamin Kracun, both the audience and the film’s ensemble of antagonists are put under the plushiest interrogation. While characters are admitting to (or alternatively avoiding responsibility for) their atrocities, they are framed as though they are in a twee Wes Anderson flick, and yet are clearly suffocated under the glossy aesthetic. The candy coated and precise images created within this film very much reflect the principle character portrayed with biting genius by Carey Mulligan. Cassie is unapologetically effeminate and also calculating to no end. The other characters perceive her as harmless as a teen magazine poster of Britney Spears, but her mind is sharper than the razor that buzzed the starlet’s locks. The camera plays with this subversion on a gratifyingly constant basis. Many will be lulled into feeling safe with its 2000’s nostalgic aesthetic and then feel the raw humor, the even rawer tension that comes from the swift transport back into the rape culture of 2020—back to the rape culture that’s always been.
This smack back to the present moves at light speed due to the editing. The pacing executed by Frédéric Thoraval works in balletic tandem with the cinematography. The images are measured and meticulous while the editing is propulsive. This technical achievement is another perfect example of Cassie’s methodology. She is impulsive but every whim stems from years of rigorous thought. Fennell’s grasp on the film’s vision becomes even clearer as a result of the inventive pacing. It also shines through in the incredible selection of “girly” tracks for the film’s endlessly listenable soundtrack. The songs are the clearest definition of ear candy. One cannot help but laugh at first when you hear The Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1,” a trailblazing song about safe sex which leads up to a problematic sex encounter. Then, one realizes these songs, like Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind,” are not ironic selections but tongue-in-cheek affirmations of ultra-feminine music. In fact, there’s not a single song on the soundtrack that isn’t performed by a woman besides the strings cover of “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
Women are the point of this film. Women are the axis of which it revolves around and there is no concession for men anywhere within. This is exactly what we needed in 2020 and 2021. No grandstanding or empty promises within any frame. The script takes sole credit for this achievement. There is no wiggle room left to answer these important moral questions about a woman’s bodily and sexual autonomy. Instead, the answers come in sardonic quips that shake away any sort of intellectual dignity the antagonist of the scene has
Considering the gifted craft elements and pristine technical achievements, the real winners of this film are Emerald Fennell of course, but most notably Carrie Mulligan. Mulligan achieves one of the most arduous tasks an actress can undergo: being an anti-hero without winking at the camera. A comparable achievement is Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl notoriety, for example. Mulligan delivers the script’s witticisms and interrogations with the realistic nature of an actual person jaded by the unjustness of the world. She provides for the audience a truly lived in character, one that some may not “relate to” but can still follow her journey despite that. As an aside: people usually only condemn female characters for being “unrelatable” anyway. What is wonderful about this film is that it does not concern itself with the likability trap whatsoever. Its female characters are grey and there is no relenting on that fact. Alison Brie’s character in particular is a fascinating case about how you can be an otherwise “good person” but still be complicit in purpetuating rape culture. Brie’s performance is precise and complex. Her level of craft is apparent when she has to represent, in her own particular way, society’s tendency for passive aggression and full-blown denial of pressing issues. Besides Fennell and Mulligan, she is truly one of the film’s most obvious winners.
Promising Young Woman is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant films to come out in (at least) the past ten years. In the opinion of this reviewer, it has one of the clearest visions in cinema, comparable to the perfection of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Not a moment is wasted, not a word is superfluous, and nothing is ever underplayed nor excessive. Emerald Fennell is certainly going to be a director to reckon with in the coming years. As the showrunner of Killing Eve, she is an expert of taking advantage of the public’s willingness to underestimate women. In this cinematic achievement the message is clear: do not underestimate this Promising Young Woman.
Watch the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.
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