Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in Promising Young WomanTWITTER/jurassicarla

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of rape culture and sexual violence.

“No use hiding from the piper, he needs to be paid.” Our piper is Cassie, a woman reeling from the trauma of losing her best friend, and the impetus of the film is her search for that payment, for revenge, in the limited and twisted ways that society offers her. Recent controversy surrounding a review of the film by Variety journalist Dennis Harvey can tell us a lot about how her tragedy of revenge plays out, and how complicit the world is in the events that take place. Carey Mulligan, who plays the film’s lead, called out Harvey for criticising the film on the basis that she wasn’t “hot enough.” He wrote, after musing whether the character would have been better suited to Margot Robbie, that Mulligan wore her “pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on”. An apology followed from the publication, and a defence from the writer, but it’s Mulligan’s response that is most interesting, asking “Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent?”

“Life is imitating art, but art is also imitating life.”

Sure, being an actor is a job dependent on physical appearance, that’s undeniable, but Harvey’s review is a telling symptom of something much uglier. Objectifying women might seem harmless in words, but Promising Young Woman tells us the story of how those words become actions, actions become excuses, and bad people get away with bad things. The review breaches a boundary between the film’s critique of society, and society’s critique of the film — a film all about the objectification of women has led to a woman objectified. Life is imitating art, but art is also imitating life.

The film subverts expectations of a rape-revenge filmTWITTER/themoviejourney

Promising Young Woman joins a long lineage of “rape-revenge” films, historically directed by men, that share the fantasy of avenging the wronged woman. It’s been widely praised as “empowering” and “powerful”, though what it means to possess “power” feels increasingly meaningless the more often the word is flung as the sole adjective to describe something written or directed by a woman. The woman in question here is Emerald Fennell, one of the three female nominees for this year’s “Best Director” category of the Golden Globes. Only one woman has ever won the award in the show’s seventy-six-year history, a neat demonstration of how award shows are strange emblems of an industry, that like all structures of capitalism, rewards men more than women.

Fennel’s film dissects familiar filmic tropes, Cassie is less exceptional than our usual “good guy”, the world has broken her, and her narrative arc of “revenge” is chaotic. In the opening scene Lizzo’s “Boys” plays, while three baby-faced men ogle the drunk and vulnerable Cassie. The male cast of the film is almost exclusively made of handsome actors like Adam Brody from The O.C., or Max Greenfield from New Girl, providing movie-watchers with the false reassurance of “oh! surely this guy can’t be that bad″. Over and over we watch men take the inebriated Cassie back to their apartments, ply her with more drinks or drugs, and attempt to rape her. Each time Cassie astonishes them, rises up stone cold sober, rejects their advances, and questions their assault. At first it seems like she might kill these men, but that’s how preconditioned we are to the fantasy of a woman wanting salacious revenge. Cassie wants to prove a point. She wants the world to recognise its wrongs. She wants an apology.

“Award shows are strange emblems of an industry that rewards men more than women.”

In 2017, a film called Elle won the best Foreign Language film at the Globes, and like Promising Young Woman, it featured a woman trying to avenge a rape. It begins with Michele (Isabel Huppert) being brutally raped by a man in a ski-mask. The event triggers a sexual awakening in her, and as she starts fantasising and roleplaying rape, sexual liberation begins to warrant the removal of consent. The film’s morality is not clear-cut, but there’s no denying it’s offensive. Unlike Elle’s graphic scenes of violence, the word “rape’ is never even spoken in Promising Young Woman. Rather, it is something the movie-goer has to force themselves to imagine: when men in bars say that Cassie is “asking for it,” we know what “it” is. When it comes to light that a video still exists of the night that Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped, we don’t see that video, but we do watch the agonising contortions of Carey Mulligan’s face as she forces herself to see the assault that led her friend to commit suicide.


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What are the ethics of showing your audience a rape scene? Elle prods at this dilemma by having Michele run a company producing video games, rife with violence, demonstrating a mode by which art might create rapists, but Promising Young Woman offers far more prudent optimism that things could ever be that simple. As the film draws to an end, the gritty reality of rape culture seems like it has won. It feels like they are going to get away with it. And even though the film’s final scene offers some catharsis, Fennel still constrains Cassie’s revenge. To beat these men, she has to play by their rules, and, like Harvey’s review reminded us, reduce herself to an object. Part of the enjoyment of watching the film is it’s brilliant surreal aesthetic — think bubble gum pink, floral summer dresses, and falling in love to a forgotten Paris Hilton song. But underneath all of this, Fennel’s art is trying to be provocatively truthful by imitating the real world in which less than 1% of rape charges end in convictions. The film is only as unsettling as the world in which its audience lives, a world which Cassie challenges: “I’m afraid it’s your day of reckoning.”