Promising Young Woman (Review)

A subjective lens is often the best way to skewer harsh realities. In Promising Young Woman, our view of the world is purposefully distorted by aesthetic. This is an overtly stylised, carefully framed and candy coloured treat – but one that hides real danger.

This colourful, or false, view of the world plays multiple roles in this brilliantly feminist revenge story. On one hand, so much of the film is about the presentation of women: how they are aestheticised, beautified, made vulnerable and generally oppressed by a patriarchal society. It is a smart use of the female gaze, and of a feminised lens, as it forces the viewer to see the world of our female characters as a skewed one. It also forces us to accept uncomfortable dichotomies in society.

There have already been numerous critiques about tonal shifts in this film. But to make this point is to somewhat overlook the core messaging. It is a film that oscillates between the unrealistically saccharine and the brutally real, often in a moment. However, the impact of how it deals with reality is not lessened by the lightness, or the artifice, it is heightened. Through this tonal whiplash we confront the feelings applied to all women and girls by the patriarchy – and how the seemingly harmless feminine expectations (oh-so cute and cuddly) hide real subjugation.

The view of the world also ties us to our main character, Cassie – played to perfection by the always brilliant Carey Mulligan. She is on a revenge quest against parasitic, horrible men – and that turns out to be a lot of people. She starts the film playing a specific role: pretending to be incredibly drunk in bars and clubs to the point that men decide they can take advantage of her (attempting to sexually assault her) – and show their true colours. It is a brutally effective way of showcasing the reality of patriarchal power dynamics that is bound to make the right people uncomfortable. In general, a real strength of this film is that the right people will dislike it.

Unreality shifting to reality comes into play beautifully in these moments, mirroring the arc of these depressingly familiar cases of assault against women as reported. The heightened lens gives it a sense of frivolity, and of emptiness. It feels playful and unreal – an analogue for forgettable – until it is suddenly not. The stylisation here matches masculine expectation, and a warped view – as Cassie conforms, chameleon-like, to what these men really want before enacting her revenge. The harsh cut to the real keeps us aware that it was real the whole time, and dark, and that it’s so easy for so many to rationalise it as something that’s not. Again, the film reflects what the patriarchy does to women.

It is smarter than this still, though, as the aesthetic frays around the edges – it is too perfect. The use of wide angled photography, often in limited spaces, puts us in line with Cassie’s character. Her journey is founded on a horrendous, and very realistic – ripped from the headlines stuff, incident that the film details (sensitively) over time. The film also, though, explores the toll her path is taking on her. A really smart choice as this is not just a liberating anti-patriarchal revenge fantasy, it is at every point aware that women don’t just win in this society. That to fight back is to engage in a two way war where you are severely outgunned.

The wide angled shots occasionally warp the wedges of the screen, perhaps resembling Cassie’s ongoing disassociation from reality. However, the juxtaposition of wide photography and tight locations does have a much more basic effect. The feeling of everyday claustrophobia and entrapment – of limited scope – presented as a feminine experience, is extremely powerful visual language. But so is the fact that images are usually overtly framed. For example, trees will bend down and work as an upper limit to the frame, or walls will conform to the edges of the screen. This continues the point of everything occurring in a constrained place, and in a beautified space. But it also shows how we can push an artistic misrepresentation onto reality, and thus links into the presentation of how women are treated by society.

In addition to this, the film is just deeply self aware. The screenplay is beautifully constructed, though does suffer from a few digressions that work thematically if not narratively. The writing is also a reminder that screenplays are much more than just dialogue, as every element of writer-director Emerald Fennell’s script is aimed at something. This film plays beautifully with codes, conventions and societal symbols. The casting is perfect – in a way that outranks performance sometimes – as a specific type of man is used to push a point about ‘nice guys’. There are some jarring performances at times – though these are rare – but the coding of every figure is so strong. The film’s narrative knows how to structure an argument, what it needs to echo, what it needs to show and – more importantly – what it does not need to show.

This leads to the film’s status as a genre deconstruction. On the surface, the film is overtly similar to a new wave of feminist exploitation and revenge movies. The initial feel lines it up with American Mary and Revenge – though the use of aesthetic to hide reality and to expose the patriarchy really does connect this film all the way back to Varda’s Le Bonheur (impressive company, to say the least). There is a knowing play with genre though, here, with seemingly purposeful allusions to male directed female led revenge thrillers – like Ms. 45 and Audition – in a way that exposes the first and subverts the second.

This film truly is in conversation with the wider genre and deconstructs it with such skill. It employs tropes, even through knowing dialogue, and then puts harsh reality onto those tropes. It also builds up to a point and then makes a deftly intelligent subversion that cuts it away from its genre partners, in a way that speaks volumes about reality – a point emboldened by the break from heightened aesthetics. This culminates in an ending that is deeply cathartic, yet also very intentional. It is perhaps a slight misstep with a tiny bit of undercutting, but this is the price the film plays for being deeply satisfying at the end – and I cannot deny that I was deeply satisfied.

So, while the film as a whole has definitive rough edges and notable imperfections, the overall effect balances everything out. Mulligan is everything the script needs her to be, and more, and the also excellent male lead – Bo Burnham (who directed Eighth Grade) – is perfectly cast and is key to the film’s messaging. It is telling that their chemistry is so good that it feels like it could be a conventional rom-com, until it’s not. Another brilliant way in which the film shows how expectations and facades cover up grim realities, and how media projections play into this. Because, this is a very smart film. It is fun, until it is not – and knows how to weaponise each side of this. And the way it balances showing and not showing is perfect at every point. Even the usage of archetypes and professions gleans so much insight about gendered dynamics in society.

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