“Who needs brains?” scoffs Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) in Promising Young Woman. “They never did a girl any good.”
One must disagree with Cassie’s jest. Promising Young Woman is proof that smarts outweigh sex appeal any day. This debut feature from Emerald Fennell is hot AF with brains to boot. Brains do the girl some good. Fennell gives Mulligan her best role in years and Promising Young Woman delivers a hugely entertaining revenge odyssey that intoxicates with titillating danger and intrigue before offering a sobering battle of the sexes for the #MeToo era.
Dark, Sexy, Dangerous
This sensational first feature from Fennell, who was the showrunner for season two of Killing Eve and plays Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown, is one ballsy debut. Promising Young Woman satirically confronts the cultural shift post-#MeToo. It raises its feathery pink pen to take aim at a society that is happy to talk about assault and harassment, but complacent when it comes to action. Fennell isn’t playing around.
The film on one hand offers a spectacularly entertaining revenge saga. On the other hand, it “goes there” by incorporating the difficulties of #MeToo into its dramatic device. Cassandra spends her nights on the prowl getting white girl wasted and picking up douchebags at clubs. When they take her home, she sobers up quickly—and they do in turn as she snaps them out of their playboy-operator mode. She has them dancing to save their balls.
As Cassandra teaches shitty men some lessons, her behaviour is itself inherently predatory. However, like Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Cassie finds herself a target of physical violence while she only fucks with men’s minds. Promising Young Woman puts a viewer directly in the position of witnessing how easily one falls prey to blaming the victim. However, as Cassie makes herself “available” for guys at the club by seeming too wasted to deny them entry into her pants, the ickiness has purpose. It sadly reminds a viewer that guys like these take advantage of women in similar situations daily. Cassandra simply keeps her wits about to protect other women who might not be so lucky. As with Elle, Promising Young Woman harnesses the power of discomfort to engage audiences with the pervasive dynamics of power and control embedded within our misogynistic society.
The motivation for Cassie’s revenge, moreover, speaks to the lateral effects of rape culture. Fennell puts this chapter of Cassie’s story on the eve of her thirtieth birthday. She’s single, living at home with her parents, and working at a coffee shop after dropping out of med school. Cassie hardly resembles the promising young woman she used to be. She’s seriously depressed and recovering from a traumatic event during her school years that saw her best friend violated, dehumanised, victimised, and then re-victimised by a system that protects men over women. Cassie’s revenge rampage escalates from the series of strike marks in her notebook to a Kill Bill-style checklist. Every fucker who wronged her friend needs to learn a lesson.
Gentlemen and Shitty Men
As Cassandra plays the innocent by day and the avenger by night, she tries to trust men again. Enter Ryan (Bo Burnham), a striking paediatrician from Cassie’s school days who saunters into the coffee shop. Ryan seems like the kind of person people call a “nice guy.” He’s suave, polite, and he let’s Cassie spit in his coffee to even old scores. However, he’s persistent. He’s not a guy used to hearing the word “no.”
In casting someone as innocuous, charming, likable, and vanilla as Burnham, Fennell finds the ideal stand-in for the all-American boy. We’ve all known guys like Ryan. They say and do the right things, please our parents, etc. (Cassie’s mom and dad, playfully performed by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown, immediately approve of Ryan.) However, men like Ryan are typical of the guys Cassie meets in the clubs. They enjoy a sense of privilege. They have a sense of entitlement. And they aren’t “bad people” at heart. They’re just…regular men. Moreover, they don’t know the gradations of shitty behaviour that transform a nice guy into a douchebag. Fennell reveals men’s unknowing complicity in rape culture with a doozy of a plot turn that escalates the film’s twist-a-minute final act.
Sugar & Spice
While this probably sounds like dark material—and, rest assured, it is—Fennell realizes it with candy-coloured sprightliness. The film offsets its taste for danger with its effervescent style. Fennell paints the film with a dazzling colour palette of pinks, blues, and reds. The production design looks slathered with the most vibrant and sexiest hues from a lipstick stand. Promising Young Woman oozes sex appeal—every frame of this film is pure sex—as it jolts viewers with its interplay between good and bad. The hypersexualized aesthetic extends to the spot-on costuming that lets Mulligan relish the roles of innocent schoolgirl, sexpot, and femme fatale, often rolled into one cherry-coloured twist.
Fennel accentuates Cassandra’s empowering sexuality with the peppiest of soundtracks. Promising Young Woman offers a memorable playlist of banger hits and poppy party anthems. Any Millennial who put their drinks up in the club scene circa 2005-2010 will undoubtedly bop along. From pitch-perfect use of “It’s Raining Men” to the Spice Girls, Fennell playfully injects the film with elements that drive our hypersexualized charge in daily life. The score by Anthony Willis takes this element a step further with unnervingly frisky string covers of pop hits like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that drive Cassandra’s revenge saga. The standout, though, is a showstopping sing-along shopping blitz set to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” The un-ironic use of the party girl’s anthem gives Hilton her first legitimately great film credit. These unexpected song choices are mere snippets of the many ways the film keeps audiences on their feet.
That’s What Girls Are Made Of
However, nothing about Promising Young Woman keeps one on edge quite like Mulligan does. Mulligan, often cast as the ingénue or girl next door, plays against type as Cassandra. She’s never gone darker than she has here. It’s probably no coincidence that Promising Young Woman marks Mulligan’s strongest work since her scene-stealing performance as Cissy in Steve McQueen’s Shame. She’s at her best playing vulnerable characters and probing dark corners of psyches that often go unexplored unless one approaches a character with such fearlessness. It’s the freest and funniest she’s ever been. She isn’t afraid to let Cassandra be unlikable. Moreover, her unlikability challenges audiences to look at the standards they place upon women to be “good girls.”
It’s probably no coincidence, either, that Cassandra feels like a spiritual sister to Fennell’s other great femme: Villanelle. Fans of Killing Eve rejoiced as the focus of the series’ cat-and-mouse chase shifted from Sandra Oh’s Eve to Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in its second season. One can see Villanelle as a template for Promising Young Woman as Fennell heightens the playfulness and sexiness of Comer’s fashionable Piper Heidsieck guzzling sociopath. Both characters are fantastically ballsy ant-heroines who know that sex is one heck of a weapon.
When’s the last time we got a film as dark, sexy, and dangerous as Promising Young Woman? Emerald Fennell throws down the glove: anyone else making their debuts this year best be ready for the challenge.
Promising Young Woman is in release December 25.