Sundance 2020: “Promising Young Woman” and the art of narrative deception 

Despite its stylized exterior, Emerald Fennell actually hits us cold with a story that is well in sync with our times
Sundance 2020: “Promising Young Woman” and the art of narrative deception 

Director: Emerald Fennell

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

The cleverly conceived trailer of Promising Young Woman promises the glorious destruction of modern #MeToo offenders, cut to a demented version of Britney Spears' Toxic. It reveals an unhinged woman who pretends to be wasted at nightclubs so that she can target every sleazy man that tries to take advantage of her. They take her home, force themselves on her, she shocks them with a perfectly sober voice – before the trailer tantalizingly suggests that perhaps this woman, Cassie, is keeping count of the predators she kills. We then learn that she is hunting down a group of old classmates who had, years ago in medical school, derailed her promising young womanhood. She is on a revenge spree. The premise seems wickedly dark and funny-sad and timely, more so for those familiar with director Emerald Fennell's work as the showrunner of the aspirationally sociopathic Killing Eve. The possibilities are endless, what with the sardonic opening montage of slow-motion close-ups of pelvic thrusts executed by smug white-collared men in sweaty nightclubs. 

The film, however, refuses to capitalize on the wry deadliness of the trailer. It teases and teases but simply refuses to explode: Cassie goes home with multiple men, but only to teach them a lesson. We never see what she does with them, but nobody dies. She works in a coffee shop by day, lives with her (disappointed) parents in what looks like a giant suburban dollhouse, and terrorizes scumbags by night. She soon meets a decent man, and is torn between the way he makes her feel and the pain she wants to inflict on men that ruined her life. The classic psychopath conflict: Am I a love story or a slasher flick? Even as she confronts them one by one, she stops short of going "full retard". She reminds them of the incident, sounds demented and walks away. For someone who has been brought up on a staple of Bollywood revenge thrillers and Tarantino-esque bloodlust, Promising Young Woman might come across as a run-of-the-mill quirkfest.

But I have a theory. I believe Promising Young Woman is underwhelming only because we expect from it a gamut of genre-movie mindfuckery. But, despite its stylized exterior, Emerald Fennell actually hits us cold with a story that is well in sync with our times. It deliberately refuses to thrill and spill, as if to suggest that the rape culture today is too real and too normalized to be exploited by an extraordinary female-vigilante device. Cassie is smart and devilish, but also vulnerable and oddly humane, driven by a loss that aborts her attempts to become the hero that the film's treatment pegs her as. She catches our eye with her audacity – the Harley Quinn glint, the gum-chewing and dead-eyed manipulation – but her plan is in fact only superficially mischievous. She wants to do more, but there's a reason she's 30 and still not a crazed killer. She is too damaged to be as sophisticated as the trailer tricks us into believing.

Carey Mulligan was obviously chosen to play on our perception of her gentle screen presence. But she also has a face of melancholy and tragedy, which is why – for a role that's a little more complex than that of a freewheeling nutcase – Mulligan is a better option than other babyfaced-assassin actresses. Her fragility, which often gets stereotyped, works in favour of this two-faced film. Only she can justify the film's uneven impulses and curious softness. Her all-bark-no-bite attitude here is jarring in a cinematic sense but affecting on a human level, because it suggests that even the most dangerous and scorned women can't match up to the deep-rooted violence of a man's body.

There's also another way of examining the awry promise of Promising Young Woman. By never quite winning, and by consistently addressing the morbid ignorance of everyman offenders ("I was a kid!"), it turns the audience into the woman. For instance, it casts an immensely charming Bo Burnham as Cassie's white knight. He is humorous, sensitive, cool and nerdy all at once – his niceness is designed to seduce wary viewers just as much as cynical Cassie. When he asks Cassie if she wants to "come upstairs for a drink," momentarily sounding like all the other creeps she entraps, the subtle disappointment on her face matches ours. "Not him too," we groan. When he lovingly calls her an asshole in bed, we grin just as widely as she does. When she confronts the lawyer who was responsible for her nightmare, an actor with a noble face – he even played Mulligan's father in a famous film – is cast so that we feel empathy towards him. When all hell breaks loose in the final act, the camera focuses on a man rather than the woman who plans to make him suffer. It stays on him, his aggression and his agony, his air and his actions – as if to reflect default male dominance even in a furiously feminist film constructed to defeat him.

If we feel fooled and let down, it's because we are the woman: We are Cassie, we are oppressed, and we are all the girls who want an ideal and lofty resolution. If anything, our reaction only reiterates the sleight-of-hand ambitions of a deceptively grounded film. It reiterates that perhaps the only way for a woman to win in an era of ambiguous #MeToo rules is to lose unambiguously and badly enough to get the men disqualified. The last laugh, in her case, might just be the last feeling. 

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