|Writer/director Emerald Fennell|
|Director on the set between Carrie Mulligan and Laverne Cox|
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN C Great Britain USA (113 mi) 2020 d: Emerald Fennell
Sometimes films are not really movies, they’re more like public service announcements, and it’s hard to feel that’s not the driving force behind this pop-art extravaganza where the bright candy-colored aesthetic is a sugar rush. Led by a powerful performance by Carrie Mulligan, this is a darkly comic, wildly subversive rape revenge fantasy where Cassie (Mulligan) is an avenging angel that checks off names in her book, going to clubs where she pretends to be falling-down drunk, then when men sweep in to rescue her, good guys supposedly offering their help and assistance before their debase predatory habits kick in, and just when they make their move, disregarding her pleas to stop, she surprises them by being stone, cold sober, asking just what they think they are they doing, catching them in the act, suddenly apologizing profusely, as if what just happened never happened. While they’re willing to forget it, she’s not, driven by a disturbing earlier incident in her life when her best friend Nina was taken advantage of, repeatedly gang raped and humiliated by college students, becoming a laughingstock for the boys at the time, all lying about it afterwards, covering up their sins, living under a white privilege bubble of money and success, where men of such promise have all the advantages, receive all the breaks, as the judicial system was built to protect them, so any so-called investigation was covered up, as the woman’s allegations were ignored and no charges were ever brought. In utter despair, the girl dropped out of medical school, despite being number one in her class, with Cassie dropping out to help her, but her friend subsequently committed suicide. This incident has haunted her ever since, leaving her lifeless and emotionally void, even depressed, still traumatized and reeling from the incident, unable to move on, instead leading a secret life of vigilantism, preying upon unsuspecting men, confronting them with the error of their ways, yet it’s a dangerous business, as she places herself in a position of vulnerablity, hoping that shaming these men will change their behavior, which is unlikely. The words “rape” and “sexual assault” are never spoken in a film that targets rape culture and how it permeates every aspect of society, with little hope for survivors when they are never listened to, completely ignored, thoroughly devalued and dehumanized, leading to feelings of worthlessness, where the film accentuates a disturbing reality where survivors are mocked and abusers continue to live normal lives with no consequences whatsoever. Tapping into the untold stories of rape survivors, this film is largely delusional on all counts, never becoming that voice for the voiceless, falling well short of its aims, bathed in wall-to-wall music that is all pop tunes, like the worst kind of club music, with lyrics pulsating with hypersexualized references, feeling empty and air-headed, exhibiting a rare standard of thoughtlessness that recklessly suggests every woman is willingly an easy mark, or that they’re just asking for it. Written and directed by a first time British female director, the actress who plays a young Camilla Parker Bowles on the television series The Crown (2016 – present), who also makes a cameo appearance here giving a video tutorial on how to achieve the perfect “blow job lips,” where in a weak year of Covid the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film, actually winning the Oscar for the screenplay, which gives you some idea of how weak the competition was this year when theaters were closed and nearly all nominated films were actually viewed on television.
Ostensibly driven by the Brock Turner rape case in 2016 (People v. Turner) when a 19-year old student athlete swimmer at Stanford University was found guilty of sexually assaulting 22-year old Chanel Miller behind a trash bin where she was apparently dragged while lying unconscious on the ground, forever known as “the drunk girl at the party,” an act witnessed and interrupted by two Swedish graduate students who were cycling on the campus, holding Turner on the ground until the police could arrive. Despite convictions of three counts of felony sexual assault, the Judge, former Stanford alum Aaron Persky, sentenced him to only 6 months of prison time, where he was released after serving just three months. According to the judge, his leniency was based on his evaluation that Brock Turner was a “promising young man.” The case sparked nationwide outrage over the perpetrator’s privilege of wealth, leading to the judge’s recall by the voters, the first to be recalled in California in 86 years. The privilege granted to Turner is surprisingly similar to Christine Blasey-Ford’s overlooked sexual assault accusations against Brett Kavanaugh more than three decades earlier at a summer party, allegedly covering her mouth while holding her down, hearing the sounds of onlookers laughing, yet he was confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the U.S. Supreme Court, as they did decades earlier when Anita Hill bravely withstood a barrage of blatant attempts to discredit her character in U.S. Senate hearings after offering testimony revealing a continual pattern of sexual harassment while working under Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who was eventually confirmed. While that may be the historical background, the preposterous nature of this screenplay is hard to digest, absurdly exaggerated beyond belief, becoming more of a satiric fever dream, something along the lines of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), yet not nearly as insightful as the indictment of the rampant hedonism of the Reagan years. All men are targeted and lumped together here, as they have a natural tendency to lie and protect themselves, just like the culture of the male-dominated police, which has been a successful historic strategy until recently when women have tried to redefine the terms of the debate, where believing women’s stories is an essential component to obtaining justice. Like a good detective, Cassie rounds up prominent women who protected and enabled the good name of the men involved, who never believed or took seriously the woman’s testimony, as prominent citizens are often involved, pillars of the community, so it’s easy to rally around them, wondering why their careers should be destroyed. But they don’t ask the same questions about the women involved, who have to relive the personal details of the incident for court testimony, often bullied by lawyers who sully and attack their character, actually blaming them for the acts that occur, while recusicating the saintly community attributes of the men involved, often leading professionals in their field, creating an air of nobility, where they seemingly can do no wrong. But time and again they are only human, and make regretful mistakes they wish never happened. Because of their position of male entitlement, and how society caters to that entitlement, they have repeatedly been let off the hook, which only reveals how much we devalue women in our society and how unlikely it is women can actually attain justice.
This film shows how men collectively conspire to protect each other, even when blatantly guilty, through a fraternal network of cover-up and subterfuge, a misuse of power that suggests their word holds greater weight than a woman’s in our society, a key underlying factor giving rise to feminism, where a woman’s view is held on an equal basis with any man. The justice system continues to reflect old ingrained habits, so rape prosecution remains a touchy issue, as so many prominent men are never held responsible for their inappropriate sexual conduct. It’s important to understand that rape is more than a violent sexual assault, often motivated by a need to assert full domination, initiating fear, where the assault is more of an act of human degradation, where the victim is reduced in status to something worthless and powerless and completely insignificant, as the man assumes all the power, believing this is an imaginary solution to the probem of masculine identity, with the rapist often feeling sexually incompetent or ignorant, actually blaming the woman, with very few rapists ever expressing remorse afterwards, yet all the victims feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. The emotional trauma is far worse than any physical act, as it stays with you like a scar that won’t heal. How many women have been sacrificed by this global rape epidemic, where in the United States alone a women is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, and 1 out of every 6 women have been rape victims, and one-third of those have contemplated suicide afterwards, yet nearly half of the perpetrators are acquitted. It is for this reason that Cassie makes it her mission to turn the tables on the men and expose them for what they are, hypocrites of the worst order, pretending to be kind and helpful, even expressing concern for their safety before resorting to predatory sexual behavior. Despite these confrontational reckonings, there is no indication any of these men have learned their lesson, as they are creatures of habit, after all, where preying on vulnerable women has been their modus operandi. What this is, instead, is a feminist rape revenge fantasy that bears little resemblance to reality, making it difficult to sympathize with Cassie when what she does is utterly deplorable, as the story is so outrageously preposterous with its go for broke, take no prisoners attitude that it’s hard to take seriously despite the director’s obvious intent to emphasize that women at all times deserve to be treated by guys with dignity and respect. Most rape revenge movies are made by men, such as Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960) and Wes Craven’s shlockmeister rip-off THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), so you’d think a female director might offer a unique perspective, yet her perverse, over-the-top feminist assault to the senses may leave some cold. Here, all the men in the movie are equated to the crime. In the same way Nina and Cassie have merged into a single character, as if they are one and the same, becoming a super-enlarged force of nature driven to make men pay for past sins, where drawing the line between moral equivalents is blatantly obvious, so there’s no ambiguity involved, as Fennell is basically castigating the entire male population for perpetuating the rape syndrome, including the cover-ups and lies, with various women doing their part as enablers, making it extremely difficult to make progress in this area. Designed to be shocking and discomforting, this is not an uplifting movie, offering no signs of hope, instead it feels more like an annihilation fantasy, too ridiculously overblown and artificially staged to alter the collective consciousness, apparently targeting the MTV pop culture audience, feeling more like a cartoon with a serious underlying message.
Part 1: The Stanford Sexual Assault Case Made Her “Emily Doe.” In New Memoir, Chanel Miller Tells Her Story Democracy Now, October 11, 2009
Part 2: “To Girls Everywhere, I Am With You”: Chanel Miller Reads from Her Victim Impact Statement Democracy Now, October 11, 2019