Friday, February 12, 2021

A Cautionary Tale for Valentine’s Day: “Promising Young Woman”

Promising Young Woman takes on the old movie formula of an attractive young female who suffers at the hands of men, then goes out to seek grim revenge. I’ve worked on heaps of genre movies beginning with that premise, which starts with innocence violated and ends with bloody (though hardly unjustified) retribution. See, for instance, Roger Corman’s Jackson County Jail as well as the Slumber Party Massacre flicks. Promising Young Woman (written and directed by the talented Emerald Fennell) doesn’t exactly upend the genre conventions. But it explores them, and eventually turns them not upside down but sideways.

 The leading character in Promising Young Woman is fiercely played by the infinitely flexible Carey Mulligan, whom I recently saw as a wise, sad middle-aged British widow in the absorbing British production, Dig. In that film, which dealt with the unearthing of the Anglo-Saxon treasure trove at Sutton Hoo, she was passionate about archaeology and her young son. In Promising Young Woman, by contrast, she plays a much younger American (barely 30) who has put her intellectual savvy to work in trying to right a wrong by any means necessary. It’s probably telling that the character’s name is Cassie, short for Cassandra. In Greek legend, Cassandra was the Trojan priestess endowed with the ability to prophesy the future. It’s less a gift than a curse, because no one believes her. I don’t want to stretch this point overmuch, but the modern-day Cassie sees things that others dismiss or overlook, and her obsession leads her to act in ways that can’t be predicted.

 Promising Young Woman is easily categorized as a revenge drama, but some critics prefer seeing it as a dark comedy. The confusion makes sense, because the tone of the movie fluctuates in fascinating ways, helped by a musical score that introduces perky pop tunes (“It’s Raining Men”) as well as, at a key moment, a solemn romantic ballad from The King and I, one that deeply underscores the story’s entrenched ironies. There’s one extended sequence in a pharmacy that’s so lovably giddy that it reminds me of a similar scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Holly and Paul steal animal masks from a novelty store. But finally our amusement rings hollow, reminding us that one of this tale’s underlying points involves how young people laugh off matters that are (or should be) deeply troubling.

 Amazing how in this film, as in life, a serious past transgression is shrugged off by many of those involved with the excuse “We were so young.” Which couldn’t help reminding me of the confirmation hearing for a certain U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Young adults, even smart ones, are capable of behavior that’s absolutely heinous. The wrong-doers may be able to shrug it off, abetted by sympathetic administrators who would very much rather not make trouble, but victims—as well as some of those who are victim-adjacent—cannot so easily erase the misdeed from their minds and hearts. Promising Young Woman is, at base, the tale of someone who can’t forgive and forget, and whose whole life becomes wrapped up in exacting payback. What makes Cassie so interesting is that she’s not, fundamentally, either a victim or a villain, but rather a combination of the two. She has a generous side, and can be, under the right circumstances, wonderfully sardonically funny. And sexy, and even a trifle tender. Still, when push comes to shove, there are lines she will never let anyone cross. Carey Mulligan first came to filmgoers’ notice with An Education, and this new film shows to what extremes that education can take her.


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