In the disguise of a revenge story, “Promising Young Woman” is actually an indictment for a dark culture with bias towards men and women and the habit of blaming victims.
Genre : Criminal, sensational
Director : Emerald Fennell
Actors : Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie
Rating : 8/10
Promising Young Woman is the first work of British actress-director Emerald Fennell. The original script was written by her, started from 2017 before the #MeToo movement burst. The content is about a woman who seeks revenge for her best friend who was a rape victim when she was a student.
With a feminine perspective, Fennell exploited the serious topic in a soft yet painful tone. Against the background of thriller, Promising Young Woman is a blend between a B-class rom-com and dark-tinged crime story.
The fascinating storytelling has earned the film five nominations at Oscar 2021, including Best Feature Film. In addition, Carey Mulligan personally received a nomination for Outstanding Actress for her performance in the role as Cassie.
Promising Young Woman: From a promising boy
On January 18, 2015, an event took place at the prestigious Stanford University that shook the whole United States. Two witnesses discovered a female student being sexually assaulted on campus at 1 a.m. The culprit is Brock Turner, 19 years old, the school’s swimming star. He committed the corrupt act while the victim was unconscious because of alcohol.
Being sentenced for five crimes, but Turner ended up serving only 6 months in prison and three years’ probation. Public opinion outraged, that the trial was biased because the defendant is white people and has a well-off background. Turner supporters, including the judges, used the phrase “promising young man” to comment on the perpetrator.
With playing on words from the name of the movie, Emerald Fennell wants to turn the rape case from the perspective of the victim: promising young girls.
Promising Young Woman begins with the main character Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan) gets drunk. She quickly became the focus of strange men in the bar. One of them approached, started asking questions and suggested wanting to take her home. But, instead of promising his words, he tried to take the girl to his own apartment.
Here, the young man began to show affection and closeness despite the girl was not sober. It started to go out of bounds when Cassie was thrown to bed.
The man saw her body as an object he owned and used at will. It was only when Cassie sprang upon him that she was stone-cold sober, shaming him.
Promising Young Woman: Personality test for men
The opening scene of Promising Young Woman is a painful slap for those who are accustomed to blaming victims (or victim blaming). But with Cassie, things are not strange. She has taken this test many times, and no one has passed it successfully.
During the day, Cassie kills time by working as a bartender at a coffee shop. At night, she goes to nightclubs to “hunt” for men every weekend. She uses a whole notebook to mark men who are eager for feminine beauty, as an “guilty pleasure”.
The rules of the game are almost the same: Cassie pretends to be drunk to fall into a man’s lap, then humiliates the other dirt inner nature.
Notably, all of Cassie’s targeted men were nice to her when they first met her. They always take advantage of the opportunity because they think that the girl is drunk, unable to control her behavior. However, when Cassie puts her cards on the table with a sober face, that’s also the time when the man shows their true personality. They all seek to degrade the dignity of the woman and insist on being a good person.
To emphasize that looks aren’t everything, Fennell actively selects familiar faces with a gentle type or a cute and friendly “boy-next-door” model. That is the beautiful image that society always looks at men, then ignores their ugly nature and sinful behavior.
Actors like Adam Brody or Christopher Mintz-Plasse prove that even the person with the nicest look can also have filthy acts.
Promising Young Woman: Psychological trauma
Cassie’s unstable mentality has many similarities with the insane characters on the book page of female writer Gillian Flynn. Cassie has a crazy look of Amy in Gone Girl (2014), and a hurtful heart of Sharp Objects‘ Camille Preake (2018).
The way Cassie unmasks the men in the middle of the night and then walked alone in the morning was just as painful and sad as the way Camille cut her body with a sharp object. These are “homemade therapies” aimed at alleviating emotional pain.
Emerald Fennell built Cassie with opposing images like a psychopath. Sometimes, she is a naive Lolita, holding her candy and reading a book in her pink outfit. Sometimes, she transforms into a “crazy Harley Quinn” with her red-green hair and a secret no one could see through.
Until the three-four of the film, the director gradually revealed about the girl’s hurt. When she was in medical school, Cassie used to be a top-rated student. The girl’s life did a 180 degree turn when her childhood best friend Nina became a rape victim at school. Nina dropped out of school after a sham investigation and ended up her life.
The rape not only pushed Nina to death, but also destroyed Cassie’s future. From a promising young girl, she lived like a lifeless corpse with cold-hearted parents who just wanted their daughter to disappear as soon as possible. Cassie even forgot her 30th birthday, because every day to her was the same meaningless.
Promising Young Woman: Indictment for rape culture
The term rape culture has been coined by American feminists since the 1970s. It refers to the fact that society always seeks to blame victims in order to normalize men’s sexual assault. This is a topic that has been largely forgotten and has just returned to recent years through the #MeToo movement.
The Brock Turner case is also a case study. Female student Chanel Miller – the victim of the incident – has received many criticisms for being drunk . Even the legal system is unjust to emphasize on the penetrators’ future over the victims’ mental and emotional pain.
Like Miller, Nina in the film is ignored by the whole society when she shares her own sad story. This character was never officially revealed, and was almost forgotten in people’s minds. Only Cassie never ceases to obsess about her best friend’s unlucky fate.
Though she is keen on medical school, but Cassie cannot turn her back on her best friend’s case. Throughout the movie, she traces the people involved in the incident to find justice, including the perpetrators.
If the beginning of Promising Young Woman is an accusation for abusers, the second one is an indictment for both an indifferent society and an unfair legal system. After many years, the lawyer went down on his knee and gave an apology to Cassie. This person confessed that he hasn’t slept well since Nina’s tragedic events.
In Greek mythology, Princess Cassandra of Troy was also a rape victim. The tragic fate has made the name Cassandra a prophecy of grief and tragedy.
In the movie, Cassie also collapses completely as Troy is engulfed in flames. The deeper she went into the journey of revenge, the more helpless she felt when society became too emotionless. When the final scene ended, the audience was humiliated and bitter about the fate of the main lead, and simulteneously shocked to realize that they are also a part of that society.
What do you think about Promising Young Woman? Let us know in the comment section.
Image courtesy: @PromisingYoungWoman