A lot of controversy surrounds Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and audience members might leave the theater with confused smiles on their faces.
Is it wrong for viewers to love the exploitative hunt deployed on young men who manipulate the rules of consent? Should the audience awkwardly giggle when men are exposed as sexual predators? Does this movie encourage sexism and male prejudice? Are these questions even that important when you consider the grander scheme of the film?
Everything about “Promising” contrasts traditional conversations about consent, trauma and revenge. The retro 80s backdrop, in tandem with stereotypical holy Madonna-like qualities, clad a typically taboo topic in neon and permits the space for an unapologetic dialogue to scream.
British actress Carey Mulligan, known for her roles in “The Great Gatsby” and “Suffragette” plays the antihero Cassandra “Cassy” with an empathetic complexity rarely showcased in a lead female character. In other revenge-thriller films, vengeance is sought by the inflicted. But in “Promising, Cassy is on a mission on behalf of a character never introduced to the audience.
Having grown up together, Cassy and Nina decided to attend med school together. But it all ends badly after a night of drinking turns into every girl’s nightmare. Nina is raped in a room with people watching and laughing. As Nina tried to voice what happened, her friends and academic institution brushed it under a rug to protect the man and his future medical career. In the end, Nina dies and Cassy drops out.
Audiences never see the assault nor are they given any image of foul play until slightly over halfway through the film, when the he-said-she-said incident is evidenced by a video recording. Even then, the audience never sees the video but is only given auditory cues. In comics, these perceptual gaps are referred to as gutters and are essential to the progression of story. It provides the space — literally — for closure.
Fennell’s decision to use the gutter and keep a rape off scene is brilliant because it not only observes the reality of sexual assault, which typically occurs behind closed doors, but it forces audience members to come to the conclusion on their own, providing agency on behalf of Nina.
As an aside, American cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud speaks to the importance of gutters in his literary work “Understanding Comics” and describes closure by use of the gutter as “observing the parts [to] perceive the whole.”
Beyond Fennell’s nuanced commentary on rape and a skewed justice system, “Promising” also exposes the reality of vengeance. It becomes evident the reverse sexual prowl and manipulation of those who manipulate the rules isn’t enough to remedy a wrong and in fact is exhausting and emotionally taxing.
Cassy’s complexities slowly explain themselves over the course of the movie and reflect the collateral damage inflicted on the loved ones of sexual crimes.
What is refreshing about “Promising” is its refusal to excuse any one perpetrator. It strips labels, removes the compartmentalization of sexual assault and places before the audience a single concept: sex without consent is rape. It leaves no room for ambiguity, either, and very clearly establishes indifference to rape is just as criminal as accessory.