Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

This may not be the most flawlessly executed piece of satire that I’ve ever come across, but it is certainly a bold one. Emerald Fennell’s impressive feature debut is a revenge movie that breaks the mould—shunning the usual violent, blood-fuelled path of retribution that is typical of such films in favour of weaponising language and gesture instead. Fennell’s film is unusual in that it doesn’t appear to be driven by a need to induce a cathartic reaction in its audience; at least, not the type of catharsis that most revenge movies strive for. It aims, instead, to make viewers feel uncomfortable; to make them squirm and twitch awkwardly in their seats—whether it’s because they can relate to the experiences of the women within, know of someone who has endured the same, or maybe because they can recognise aspects of their own behaviour, or those of friends, that they wish they could sooner forget. Ultimately though, it’s a film with a crystal clear purpose—it wants to make a point, and a crucial one at that.

The fact that the film has been met with such a mixed response to me only suggests that it has succeeded in this aim—that is, to draw attention to the systemic failings that continue to trivialise and underplay the seriousness of rape and sexual assault. Of course, I’m in no way suggesting that all those who dislike this are somehow guilty of the above—far from it—as I can appreciate that certain aspects of the film’s narrative and politics will rub many people up the wrong way. But I think this was a large part of Fennell’s objective. She is deliberately provoking the audience—she wants everyone to have a visceral reaction to what is shown, and she wants them to talk about it afterwards, no matter whether they feel positive or negative about the experience. Like it or lump it, the movie deals with serious issues that need to be verbalised publicly if there is any chance of them ever being tackled in any meaningful way. The fact that this film has gone some way to achieve that aim, makes me feel that it is deserving of the attention and the commendation it has received.

Much of the negative discourse that I’ve come across seems to focus on Fennell’s standpoint being unwaveringly “anti-male”. I couldn’t disagree more. By all means, her point of focus here appears to be a very specific and disturbing aspect of the male ego—that “nice guy” facade that some (but by no means all) men possess that gives off the appearance of good intentions while concealing far from honourable ones. But by singling out this type of male behaviour Fennell is not being anti-male—she is simply pointing out how embedded this type of behaviour has become. This is so clearly a story that speaks to the personal experiences of women, so in that sense what the film explores cannot be refuted. It is a pervasive pattern of behaviour that can be found in all manner of men, from all walks of life. It is not singling one type of man, or all men, out—it is saying that this behaviour has become a mindset for many of them, and as such it needs to be weeded out of society.

But as a further counter to the above claim that the film is somehow misandristic—just look at how Fennell frames the women in the story. Take, for instance, Cassie’s old classmate, played by Alison Brie, who is every bit a target for not having spoken up when she witnessed Nina’s rape, and who is complicit for having watched a video of the incident and just shrugged it off. Or the female Dean of Cassie’s old medical school, who stood by and did nothing to act on the allegations that were reported to her. The dialogue of this particular exchange is shockingly frank about the realities—the male perpetrators are so often given “the benefit of the doubt”; they are “innocent until proven guilty”; it is the victim’s word against theirs. According to the Dean, “accusations” of sexual assault or rape are made several times a week, but who is she to act on them if it risks derailing a young man’s life? Fennell is drawing attention not only to how people in positions of power repeatedly fail to act, but also to that particularly alarming statistic, where so many of these incidents are reported but so few are taken seriously, more often than not due to “lack of evidence”. How many times has this reasoning been given, I wonder?

It’s also worth pointing out how anti-heroic and ignoble Cassie is herself in this whole affair. She’s hardly shown to hold the moral high ground, given that she spends the entire film goading and stringing various men along in order to catch them out. She’s fighting fire with fire, and it ultimately achieves nothing, other than to bring her some hollow personal satisfaction; only this path proves to be wholly self-destructive in the long run. Many might argue (and have) that she is not a plausible character... but I’d argue that she isn’t supposed to be. This is satire, and this is a movie. Her retaliatory behaviour is deliberately exaggerated to make a point. Fennell has flipped the roles of victim and perpetrator on their head, with Cassie merely behaving in a manner that, historically, the men have towards her. It is an extreme role reversal, yes—but it takes such a dramatic power-shift for the men to finally take notice.

To me the movie’s message is clear: it doesn’t matter if you are not physically guilty of the behaviour depicted within—if you choose to merely stand by and let it happen unchallenged, then you are every bit as complicit, and doing or saying nothing merely perpetuates the problem. The film speaks to how widespread the problem is, and how poorly comprehended it is by the wider public—and I very much count myself as belonging to that latter group. These are important messages, and Fennell gets them across very effectively.

At least, she does right up until the last ten minutes or so. There is a specific point where this film should have ended, and had it done so, Fennell’s overall message would have been all the more potent. I was all prepared to be completely knocked for six; presented with Fennel’s final biting statement—a perfect encapsulation of the entire issue, in which the men ultimately come out on top and the woman’s voice is continually suffocated. But to my great dismay, Fennell decided to keep things running and the moment and its potency was completely lost. It’s such a shame, as her chosen ending carries far less weight or meaning. It may feel like justice to the viewer—and there is a certain catharsis to be had in those final few minutes—but surely it would have been a stronger statement to point to the reality: that justice for the victim is so rarely served.

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