Sundance 2022: Fresh, Princess And The Shared Pound Of Flesh

Mimi Cave’s romantic horror satire is a twisted lovechild of Promising Young Woman and Get Out, while Ed Perkins’ documentary untells the Diana story
Sundance 2022: Fresh, Princess And The Shared Pound Of Flesh

Fresh made me miss a meal or three. Mimi Cave's romantic horror satire (!) is a twisted lovechild of Promising Young Woman and Get Out – except it carves the modern dating and gender allegories into our hearts with a bloody steak knife. There's also a fair bit of Hostel in Fresh, at least in terms of where body horror stands on the scale of sociocultural expression. The sickness of it all is of course entirely intended and writer Lauryn Kahn's triumph at a time when the normalization of abuse is as common as illegal meat markets. It's a man-eat-woman world out there, and Fresh is more than happy to butcher the odd proverbial hashtag. Of all the ways to convey the commodification of female bodies and a deep-set predator culture, be rest assured that nobody saw the most literal way coming. 

Normal People star Daisy Edgar-Jones is Noa, a young 20-something woman who's so disillusioned with the dating-app scene that an old-school grocery-isle meet-cute wins her over. She, too, is taken by the promise of an analog romance in an age of digital duplicity. The man, Steve (Sebastian Stan, channeling his inner You), has no social media footprints – which to Noa is a disarming sign of authenticity. What's the worst that could happen anyway? He's too cute to be a plastic surgeon who locks women in his basement. But when Noa finds herself precisely in this position, Fresh, by virtue of being hard to digest, becomes a monster of shape-shifting commentary. Being consumed, little by little, by a toxic relationship takes on a whole new (or old) meaning. As does the term flesh trade, which when viewed through the lens of new-age hookup devices, reduces every person to the sexual sum of their parts. It eats me that I can't spell out the spoiler, but I certainly can't be accused of undercooking the stakes. 

The film-making is wry, teasing our perception of both genre and life tropes. "Match cuts" are seen in a perverse new light, as though the makers are grinning at how the best way to the male viewer's heart might be through his (churning) stomach. Pawel Pogorzelski's camerawork is as self-aware as the screenplay. The foreboding intro of Noa's features aside, every other frame channels the cosmetic beauty of an online display picture. The honeymoon phase is shot like a post-status-change album of well-lit lushness, while Steve's lair pulls on the empty slickness of a Christian Grey dungeon of pain. Most dialogue crackles with double meaning ("I'm going to take your ass" being the most significant), and the casting of Daisy Edgar-Jones is wickedly effective, pulling on Marianne's Swedish nightmare and her wondrously natural sex scenes from Normal People with tongue-in-cheek pride. Sebastian Stan is equal parts Jason Bateman and Penn Badgley, which works very well for the portions in which Steve's sickness starts to get adulterated by feeling. 

But it's a 'stock' character that says more about Fresh than its gory ingredients. Jonica T. Gibbs plays Molly, Noa's best friend and the only one on Steve's scent from the get-go. Her journey through the film is what firmly places Fresh in award-winning Promising Young Woman category – extracting the story from the cinematic correctness of feminism to reveal the sisterhood of female rage. Molly is right all along, but her rescuing needs rescuing too: a messy arc that suggests how saving, for a woman, is a primal consequence of surviving together. It's not a "movie genre" so much as a narrative of being. Her role further fuels the film's disdain for male saviors. Dayo Okeniyi plays Paul, a rugged bartender who sets out to rescue Molly but ends up chickening out when push comes to shove – a sly takedown of not-all-men complicity in the slaughterhouse of consent. 

Speaking of complicity, Ed Perkins' Princess does something phenomenal. It untells the Diana story. By constructing her life solely through a mix of archival footage and historical media coverage, the documentary turns the camera on the world that watched – and continues to watch – her. There is no voiceover, no retrospective analysis, revisions or dramatizations. It's just Diana in the public eye, in the moment, revealing and withholding, rising and falling, living and dying in the conscience of a country that's in a dysfunctional relationship with their monarchy. I know what you're thinking: Do we really need another Diana film? The ghosts of The Crown and Spencer are still young. But this is distinctly different. 

Princess opens in the city of Paris as seen from a tourist's grainy handycam on that fateful 1997 night; the sight of the paparazzi outside a hotel piques the curiosity of the recorders, who suspect that there's someone famous in the vicinity. Little do they know that this will be the last time the most popular woman on the planet is seen alive. Approximately 90 minutes later, Diana's death is revealed on the television screen in an American living room, where a card-playing gang goes from initial skepticism ("the news says Diana is gravely injured," laughs a man who's visibly wary of tabloid sensationalism) to silent incredulity (the same man is soon in tears when her death is declared on CNN). In between, Diana is stalked and seduced by the cameras across her 17 years in captivity. Like Noa, she falls for the gaze at first, heady in her prince-charming fairytale, only to be overwhelmed by the horror of it all in due time. The score is operatic and movie-like, almost as a taunt to the countless fictional interpretations of her life over the decades. When the music finally does go silent, the mirror cracks – thousands of onlookers offer their tears and grief to two sons in mourning, accusing the media of killing their beloved princess. 

The title of this documentary could very well have been "Fresh". It is, after all, about a promising young woman whose heart is commodified – and whose soul is sliced into little pieces that are sold to a famished audience in all its grotesque g(l)ory. The blood has long gone cold, but Princess is a rare reckoning that reveals our pound of flesh. 

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