This is just one of the memories that came flooding back to me as I watched Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.” The movie transported me to some of the worst moments of my life when I tried to pick up the pieces after my abuser, and ex-boyfriend, turned my friends against me as I accused him of rape. I saw myself in a victim named Nina, despite the fact that she’s never shown in the film. And in Cassie, Nina’s friend and the film’s main character, I saw my friend who so desperately needed my forgiveness. “Promising Young Woman” left this sexual assault survivor feeling empty and hopeless, as if I would never be whole again.
Much of the film speaks truth to what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault and the lack of punishment for abusers; Fennell does not hold back in her critique of rape culture and how it permeates every inch of society. Yet “Promising Young Woman” hits two major stumbling blocks in its desire to interrogate justice and create an empowering narrative: its portrayal of Cassie and Nina’s relationship, and its jaw-dropping ending.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who spends her days slinging coffee and her nights pretending to be drunk in order to lure men into taking advantage of her and then showing them their true colors. Cassie is on a mission to avenge her best friend, Nina, who was raped and subsequently committed suicide seven years ago. A man ruined Nina’s life and wasn’t punished because he was deemed a promising young man. Since those in power wouldn’t deliver justice, Cassie takes it upon herself to punish those responsible.
“Promising Young Woman” is steeped in a neon pink high-femme aesthetic not unlike what’s seen in Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge film “Revenge” (2017). But unlike Fargeat, Fennell has this imagery persist throughout, painting a bright picture of a woman scorned who weaponizes her femininity instead of shedding it. The pigtails and pink that make women seem vulnerable is worn like armor, a reminder that nothing here is what it seems.
Every move Cassie makes is in memory of Nina. Every punishment is enacted because of Nina. Everything is about Nina. But Nina’s voice is never heard. She’s a ghost, silently floating at the periphery, talked about, not to. Yes, this is a film about Cassie’s grieving process, but that comes at the price of a sexual assault survivor being stripped of her personhood. There is a statement to be made about how that was already done by the entire patriarchal system; no one remembers her name, a man was prioritized over her well-being, the list goes on. But without any further introspection from the film about that idea, the construction of Nina becomes flimsy. She becomes an idea that Cassie has based her entire identity around rather than a full human being.
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