Given that critics have been arguing about the Oscar-nominated Promising Young Woman since it premiered at Sundance roughly 15 months ago, it feels fitting that the film bears less resemblance to a shiny new release than it does to a rediscovered relic of the recent past. More specifically, it is easy to imagine it as a product of the Noughties, given its knack for channelling the decade that began with Britney Spears releasing Toxic – a version of which, adapted for an orchestra, is on the soundtrack – and reached its apotheosis with the image of a bratty Megan Fox, dressed in a pink heart-pattered hoodie in Karyn Kusama’s 2009 fim Jennifer’s Body, coolly telling her best friend that she had not been killing people, only “boys”.
Marketed somewhat inaccurately as a violent rape revenge film, Promising Young Woman is in fact a candy-coloured meditation on rape culture and on grief. It follows a young woman – played with throaty, vicious verve by Carey Mulligan – who fakes being dead-drunk in dark bars, waits for men to take her home, then sits up at the crucial moment to reveal that she is sober and that she is very, very disappointed in their choices. It features Adam Brody (best known for The OC, 2003-2007), and the single Stars Are Blind by Paris Hilton (2006), and the kind of bougie cupcake shop popularised by HBO’s Sex and the City (1998-2004). A crucial plot point hinges on the receipt of an ominous text message ending with a winky face – not an emoji, but an old-school semi-colon and a bracket.
In terms of its sensibility, in other words, it is the cinematic answer to a hot-pink “Cute but Psycho” baby tee. Having come of age in the mid-Noughties, I confess that its aesthetic – contrasting its darkest notes with sugary colour, fond of heavy-handed angel symbolism, stylised but not necessarily that stylish – made my teeth ache in the way that trends remembered from one’s youth so often do. Its writer-director, Emerald Fennell, who was born in 1985, no doubt has similar associations, making her very deliberate invocation of the era interesting, if ultimately unexplained. (The film is not presented as a period piece, nor does it play with our perceptions in the way that, say, David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film It Follows did by merging 1980s style with future tech.)
It is possible that Fennell is echoing the film’s themes of arrested development by trapping Promising Young Woman’s characters in the immediate aftermath of its lead character’s decision to drop out of medical school many years ago as a result of trauma: her youth and her early promise slowly fading. Still, the overall effect sometimes suggests a millennial version of the boomerish nostalgia groups that are so popular on Facebook: “Remember electroclash? Remember Paris Hilton’s pop career? Remember McLovin from the 2007 film Superbad?”
Promising Young Woman’s politics, too, are a little reminiscent of the Noughties. For a contemporary movie about rape, it places entirely too much faith in the effectiveness and mercy of the police. Its heroine – who sees the truth but is continually disbelieved, and has therefore been named “Cassandra” – is avenging a best friend who killed herself after being sexually assaulted during college, but the friend remains unseen, another dead girl as a plot device. There is a joke about men who love David Foster Wallace being jerks; a college dean describes a rapist as “a nice boy” and then asks “what would you have me do, ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?” as if a basic viral think piece about campus rape had been directly adapted into fiction.
“Who would be scared of a woman in a floral dress, with her pretty blond hair spun into a braid, tied together with a ribbon?” Fennell asked in February, in an article for Vogue. Because it is 2021 and not 2004, anybody with a passing interest in a form of feminism that is intersectional knows that a blonde white woman in a girly dress can be extremely dangerous, especially when she is not fully aware of her own biases. One of the most interesting, genuinely risky things the movie does is to have Cassie save her most punishing acts not for the Nice Guy would-be rapists she entraps, but for the two women who chose to overlook her best friend’s sexual assault. Here, the screenplay touches on, then darts away from, something darker: an acknowledgement of internalised misogyny, or of the way some women fight among themselves in lieu of turning their aggression on the system. As cathartic as it might be for the film to tip over into traditional revenge, it does not need more bloodshed to feel adequately modern or provocative. It would be enough for it to be tricksier and more ingenious – as invested in its substance as the pretty, glossy promise of its style.
“Promising Young Woman” is streaming now on Sky Cinema and Now TV