' ' Cinema Romantico: Promising Young Woman

Monday, March 01, 2021

Promising Young Woman

“Promising Young Woman” begins with a few bros, all of whom undoubtedly read “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) as a Hero’s Journey, talking. Eventually they notice a young woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), across the way, alone and inebriated. One bro (Adam Brody) offers to take her home, by which he means his home, where he proceeds to get her in bed, undressing her. The camera switches to a shot from above. Cassie is now looking right at us. “Hey,“ she says. It’s jarring in the best way. If scenes like this frequently veer toward abhorrent voyeurism, protecting us from feeling the true implications by maintaining a convenient It’s Just A Movie separation, Cassie is quietly bludgeoning through the fourth wall, not inviting us in so much as demanding we enter, refusing to let us - you, me, men - off the hook. What do you think about this? she is saying, more or less. If you were here, what would you do? Seeming to suspect we would do nothing, she takes matter into her own hands, though director Emerald Fennell cuts away before we see precisely what. The scene switches to the next morning, Cassie striding down the street in the manner of an action hero, staring down some catcalling construction workers, causing them to spew sexist vitriol instead, turning that old Jerry Seinfeld joke about men yelling at women from construction sites inside-out. This is the world, in other words, in which Cassie exists, surrounded by men who want her to smile or go the fuck away. And though there are moments when you might wonder if “Promising Young Woman” might have examined America’s ubiquitous sexual assault problem with more nuance, Fennell recognizes that because the scales of justice have tipped so far out of whack, such aesthetic and narrative modulation would be a lie.

Thirty years old and still living at home, Cassie is cocooned in the adolescence she refuses to leave by Fennell’s bright color schemes while frames typically wall her off from her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) even when they are in the same room. This is not standard arrested development, though, as “Promising Young Woman” gradually makes clear, but something more insidious, the long-term affects of her best friend, Nina, never seen, having been sexually assaulted when they were in medical school together. It is implied that Nina took her own life and Cassie has taken it upon herself not so much to right the wrong in the name of a justice system that failed her friend as ensure no more wrongs are committed, posing as drunk night-after-night to be picked up by dishonest men and then turn the tables. Though we eventually learn Cassie does not commit murder, Fennell nevertheless briefly leaves that possibility dangling, not for a cheap thrill but to force us to see through the looking glass the other way, like a woman who wakes up the morning after and wonders what happened. 

If Cassie is stuck in the past then it only makes sense that a past figure, Ryan (Bo Burnham), would help (try to) bring her into the present, entering the coffee shop where she works by chance and kinda, sorta re-meeting cute. After a few dumb statements, he jokingly asks Cassie to spit in his coffee, which she does, Mulligan playing the moment not with a “hey, why not” but an “of course, totally.” If it’s funny, it is also Ryan essentially acknowledging his inherent male dumbness, a kind of offering that he can he trusted. Cassie might still be initially wary, but she comes around, Mulligan and Burnham demonstrating a solid yin/yang kind chemistry in her terseness and his penchant for patter. Their burgeoning love culminates in a bubbly montage, not so much subverting the trope as surrendering to it, allowing Cassie to indulge in the fantasy before demonstrating that’s all it is with mid-movie revelations that send her back down the path of ultimate vengeance. 

Mulligan is sensational. She deploys her vocal fry like a weapon, less aggressive than cunning. When Ryan wonders if Cassie is okay, starting his sentence with a traditional “You seem”, the way she cuts him off with an “I seem what?” feels like a sly condemnation of every male emotional diagnosis for all time. When another male character dusts off the stereotypical, standardized complaint that Cassie is insane, she replies “I honestly don’t think I am”, Fennell disappointingly literalizing what Mulligan’s performance lives out, a manifestation of brutal reason in a dishonest world that wants her to believe she’s crazy. A pair of scenes with a former classmate (Alison Brie) are key to Nina’s justice but also present Cassie’s opposite. Whereas Brie is hanging on by a thread, on the verge of exploding from the emotion her character has tamped down, Mulligan is a picture of stone cold clarity. 

Cassie’s quest innately raises the question of whether retribution and redemption in the face of something so awful can ever truly be achieved and in a crucial scene, Nina’s mom (Molly Shannon), counseling Cassie to move on, suggests they are not. That would also seem to suggest the knotty conclusion, not to be revealed, has its cake and eats it too. But in navigating the system that let her friend down, what Cassie uncovers is that such moral grey areas are precisely what allow people, bad actors or something more nebulous, to skate away free or eschew remorse. Rather than straddling the fence, like it or not, “Promising Young Woman” paints the world as good or bad, black or white. 

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