Promising Young Woman (2021)
Words by Fiona Callow
Promising Young Woman (2021)
Promising Young Woman is a candy-coloured contemporary fever dream, full of unease and anger that broods beneath the bubblegum aesthetic. Cary Mulligan is a powerhouse as Cassie, whose destructive destiny is the unstoppable juggernaut driving the film. Everything is calculated as deception; from the good-girl day time fashion of florals and fluffy jumpers, to the night time femme fatale outfits, the audience is invited to question everything- the stereotypes she uses to enact her revenge, the motivations behind the revolving cast of characters that fall into her orbit, and the moral ambiguity of her relentless quest for revenge. Unsettling? Certainly. Iconic? Definitely.
If you were to only judge Promising Young Woman on its cinematography, the glossy finish and hazy pink aesthetic, you would be forgiven at first to mistake it for the beginning of a kooky indie love story. The sugary-sweet soundtrack of Charli XCX, Britney Spears and even Paris Hilton play up perfectly to this illusion. But the urgency of its own ferocious narrative soon pulses through the frothy visual layers, inexorably drawing the viewer into the dark world that cannot be contained.
The first scene is one that immediately speaks to the lived experience of so many women. Watching a bleary-eyed and apparently wasted Cassie- played by the sublime Cary Mulligan- we tense when we see the smooth-talking male stranger approach her in a bar and offer to take her home. The fight or flight response is so ingrained in us that watching this happen to Cassie is torturous, almost triggering- until the switch is flipped and Cassie reveals herself as the master of her own destructive destiny.
The film has already stormed the award season- winning Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, The Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. This is Emerald Fennel’s debut feature, but it certainly doesn’t show. Speaking to BBC News about the film Fennel said: “There have been so many people, so many women too, myself included, there are times when none of us behaved in ways we should've, were supportive enough or took things seriously enough. 'And for lots of men I think [the film] has been deeply troubling because they've realised that maybe there have been moments where they didn't have enough empathy to think of what the other person might be experiencing." She adds: "I don't think it's a polemic against men, but it's a polemic against the culture that we all grew up in which tends to side with men more than it does with women."
There is indeed an onslaught of problematic, and downright perverted men, but the women don’t get off lightly either in Cassie’s relentless pursuit for revenge. Women are agents in enabling the patriarchy to commit their atrocities and Cassie treats them with the same distain as she does the men that she exposes as predators.
Fashion is pivotal in her deception, playing up the classic tropes of good girl vs femme fatale. Cassie has the perfect day time outfits to give her ultimate good-girl image: fluffy jumpers, floral prints, shades of pastels that scream ‘I’m sweet, I’m weak, I’m nice’. These contrast with what she wears for her nocturnal pursuits; bodycon, sparkles, the male fantasy of seeming more sexually available because it’s tighter, shorter, more revealing. Nancy Steiner, the costume designer on the film, described Cassie’s use of these disguises to Vogue as: “[She] knows exactly how useful clothes can be, especially in a crisis, and her outfits are chosen with the precision and stealth of a sniper.”
The film doesn’t allow us to sit back and watch simply as a straight revenge thriller; we are made to question our own judgements of right and wrong, and how we too can be complicit in seeing things from a skewed societal view. There are moments where we could almost believe that Cassie’s redemptive arc could be as simple as falling in love- scenes with love interest Ryan are played as straight romantic comedy skits, lulling us into a false sense of security before she subverts the genre on its head, berating us for being so naïve as to fall into the trap of still- after all we’ve seen- for falling for the nice guy narrative.
The final act of the film is a shocking crescendo of action that- like the rest of the film- doesn’t leave us wholeheartedly satisfied. Men are the reason for Cassie’s death, yet she is in control, even of her of her own demise, and that duality of responsibility means that while we are jubilant that men are held to account, we are also deeply troubled that yet another woman has had to perish in order to achieve this- no matter how orchestrated it seems to be.
This is a candy-coloured contemporary fever dream that just like Cassie refuses to go quietly- long after the credits roll, it feels less like you’ve watched a film, and more like the iteration of a cultural movement fuelled by the legacy of Me Too, of declining rape conviction numbers, of a growing social consciousness. There is hope and despair in equal measure- but perhaps the most important thing is, Promising Young Woman has thrown down the gauntlet for other Hollywood films to tackle the gender and cultural issues they have long swept under the rug.