Early in Emerald Fennell’s biting and insightful Promising Young Woman, protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan, “Suffragette”) is catcalled by a group of workmen. It is a depressingly common scenario — a woman subjected to sexual objectification, for little reason other than men want to and can. But writer-director Fennell and star Mulligan strike a pose in response. Cassie neither accepts nor ignores the men, but instead stares them down. The camera cuts between views of Cassie and the workmen, framing them in identical wide shots. Presented in this equanimous way, the men become reluctant and turn away, offering some final feeble insults as they wither under Cassie’s gaze.
Delivered under the opening credits, this sequence establishes that Promising Young Woman is, among other things, a film about seeing. It is about how women and indeed men are seen. It is about seeing others and seeing one’s past and present, although the future seems largely obscured and indeed irrelevant. Fennell creates a deceptively simple narrative that problematizes easy genre categorization. There are elements of the revenge thriller and even moments of horror, as well as aspects of the romance and friendship drama, interweaved with a satirical look at the battle of the sexes. All of this is mixed into a darkly comedic tale of contrasting visuals, including a production design of pastel colors wedded to dark subject matter and wide angles used to tell an intimate story.
The paradoxical presentation furthers the film’s conceit about looking, including looking at some things but not others. It is an established film theory that the cinematic gaze objectifies the female body, but even before the aforementioned catcalling scene, we are treated to an opening montage of men’s bodies dancing and gyrating in a nightclub. Whereas such a montage of women’s bodies would typically be presented as alluring, here the female gaze objectifies through revulsion. The bodies are discordant and grotesque, lurid and garish. Men in the film are rapidly shown to reflect that impression, as they spot the apparently inebriated Cassie and go to help her because they are “nice guys” — which is to say they spot a promising opportunity for easy sex. Their entitlement, lack of self-awareness and empathy, is mercilessly and effectively conveyed through the uncompromising camera of Fennell and director of photography Benjamin Kracun, which follows these self-denying sexual predators with brutal honesty.
Despite the film’s stark confrontation with toxic masculinity, there are also key moments of restraint. When Cassie encounters a video of a traumatic event, crucially we only hear it, the camera instead focused on Cassie’s increasingly distraught face. The event itself, made clear through sound, need not be seen because the film is concerned with the impact on and the response of the character.
And what a character! Mulligan’s Cassie is a tour de force of blunt force desire. Her long blonde hair, pastel-colored nails and regular chewing of candy carries connotations of flightiness and the bimbo stereotype, but her deadpan eyes and sudden switch from vacant to stone-faced indicate her deep but unspoken troubles. Cassie dropped out of medical school after an incident involving her friend Nina, and Nina’s absence is the most prominent presence in Cassie’s life, leaving Cassie with little identity of her own due to her ongoing grief which has become a form of arrested or interrupted development. Living with her parents Stanley (Clancy Brown, “Chappaquiddick”) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge, “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans”) at the age of thirty, both of whom are kind but oblivious, and working at a coffee shop with no career aspirations and the most chilled-out boss imaginable, Ruby (Laverne Cox, “Grandma”), Cassie fulfills any stereotype of a “promising young women” who is wasting her life and potential. Cassie claims that she could have a career, family and kids if she wanted, but as the film progresses this claim becomes dubious. Is she where she is because of a conscious decision to refute societal expectations, or has she never moved on from her loss? A telling encounter with Nina’s mother Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon, “The Little Hours”), where Cassie is beautifully presented sucking on a juice box, highlights her inertia and indeed the futility of her Pyrrhic and Sisyphean quest.
Cassie tricks men, as well as complicit women, to obtain a form of justice, but not in the way you might expect. Her confrontations with authority are elaborations on the steely gaze she gives the workmen who catcall her. There is no detailed scheme to bring down the patriarchy or to enact revenge such as in “Bad Candy” or “Monster.” Rather, what Cassie and the film as a whole demands is an acknowledgement of male privilege. As she asks various men, what are you doing? What they are not doing is admitting, or apologizing, indeed the men always assume that what they do is expected and acceptable. Boys will be boys, it’s just how things are, she was into it, it wasn’t my fault, I’m a nice guy. These excuses crop up again and again, from the men Cassie confronts from bars as well as her chance at romantic redemption, Ryan (Bo Burnham, “Rough Night”). Thus, the film presents a number of different looks. The look of women from a constrained position within western society, the look of men upon women and the returned look. For different audiences, the film will suggest different things, and in particular, it invites a strong self-reflection on the part of the male viewer. We may think we are nice guys, not toxic or exploitative, but take a long hard look, perhaps at the young women you know that might seem promising in one way or another, and maybe there’s a less pleasant but all the more real side that we need to acknowledge.
It is to the great credit of Promising Young Woman that it suggests all these perspectives without ever feeling preachy or labored. This is due to the smart combination of elements that Fennell, Mulligan, the supporting cast and the rest of the crew bring together, in a gorgeously contradictory tapestry of colors, trauma, twists, horrors, and laughs. It is the sign of a tightly constructed film that it summarizes its point in a couple of moments. In the case of Promising Young Woman, this summary comes in the early scene of catcalling and returned gaze, and is capped off with the cheeky, knowing and even mocking wink right at the end. To paraphrase “Casablanca,” here’s indeed looking at all of us.