Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2021: Rachel Pronger on Promising Young Woman | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism

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Rachel Pronger writes about film, visual art and cultural history. She is also a programmer and curator, and cofounder of the feminist film collective Invisible Women. Born in Bradford, she is currently based in Berlin

It’s that queasy part of the night. We’re in a sleazy bar, the kind with mirrored walls and a sticky floor. A drunk woman sprawls on a banquette, propped up, barely able to lift her head. She’s smartly dressed, alone, abandoned. A group of men survey her with distaste. “They put themselves in danger, women like that. You’d think they’d learn by that age, right?”

One of the men, a “Nice Guy”, comes to her rescue. He scoops her into a cab and takes her home. He puts her in his bed. She is semi-conscious. He begins to kiss her. She tells him to stop. He keeps going. She snaps awake. He gets the shock of his life.

The opening scenes of Promising Young Woman are a bait-and-switch masterclass. The woman is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), and we’re joining her in the middle of a careful performance. By day, she’s a depressive deadbeat, living with her parents and wiling away time behind a coffeeshop counter. By night, she prowls bars in a tight dress, feigning intoxication, a honeytrap intent on catching predatory men in the act.

Cassie’s vigilantism is fuelled by vengeance. Years ago, at med school, a traumatic incident shattered her promising future. Now a directionless dropout, Cassie’s righteous fury finds expression in night-time sprees. Isolated from her peers, her only contact is with kindly boss Gail (Laverne Cox) and her baffled parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who are unaware of how their once highflying daughter spends her nights. When a college acquaintance, the gentle Ryan (Bo Burnham), re-emerges, Cassie sees the opportunity to pursue revenge on a grander scale. At the same time, Ryan’s interest offers an escape from this double life and Cassie is caught between her desire for retribution and the possibility of love.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman
‘Fuelled by vengeance’: Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Photograph: Focus Features/Allstar

The first feature from writer-director Emerald Fennell is a bold piece of work. Two of Fennell’s contrasting past credits – Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown and showrunner for Killing Eve – offer a curious primer. Genres are juggled with astonishing confidence, moods shift dramatically mid-scene. By turns a thriller, satire, dramady and romcom, Promising Young Woman is sliced through with violence, comedy and feminist commentary. Not every gear change works – like her mercurial antiheroine, Fennell’s approach can be as infuriating as it is impressive – but the fatalistic momentum is irresistible.

Promising Young Woman is held together by its audacious sense of style. Cassie’s suburban daytime life is an Instagram paradise of powder blues, lilacs and yellows, her nocturnal hunting ground all dark oak and mirrorballs. Accents of pink (neon, millennial) and deep red (smudged lipstick, squelching pleather) streak through both worlds. The hyperreal aesthetic draws out Fennell’s Lynchian central theme: the seam of sleaze throbbing beneath our candy-coated everyday.

For a certain demographic, there’s pleasure to be taken from Fennell’s skewering of millennial mores. Playful music choices – Paris Hilton, Spice Girls, Britney – are used to alternately hilarious and striking effect. The casting of Mulligan – on electrifying form after some time away from film – calls to mind her mid-00s breakthrough. Most enjoyably, Cassie’s victims are played by a rogue’s gallery of 00s stars, with the likes of Adam Brody (The OC) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) popping up in cameos. More than a gimmick, these memorable faces upend expectations. In Fennell’s world no one, not even a familiar face, can be trusted.

While this millennial-baiting hits a demographic sweet spot, it also highlights a problem. Fennell uses near-past nostalgia to force her audience to look firmly to today, noting how conversations around rape culture, turbocharged by social media, have massively shifted in a decade. The trouble with addressing charged issues, though, is that the timeline of film-making inevitably struggles to keep pace with the conversation.

Promising Young Woman is being sold as a #MeToo film. While a helpful aggregator, such labels don’t say much when you consider that the pantheon of #MeToo art runs the gamut from the pantomime simplicity of Bombshell to the thorny depths of I May Destroy You. Promising Young Woman is vastly superior to the former, but it’s hard not to compare its central discussion of consent with the latter, and find it wanting.

The biggest question is that of timeliness. I first saw Promising Young Woman in March 2020, when it was slated for a spring release and surrounded by anticipatory buzz. Since then, obviously, a lot has happened. Displaced by cinema closures, it’s hard not to feel that its subversive edge has already been softened by the delay. It’s hard to know what landscape it will arrive in when the film is finally released next February. Nevertheless, while some freshness has been lost to the blackhole of pandemic time, this remains an undeniably auspicious debut – a cathartic, wild-eyed howl of a movie.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2021: Rachel Pronger on Promising Young Woman | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism

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