Elizabeth Taylor picks up a tube of red lipstick in the opening scene of BUtterfield 8 (1960) and scrawls the phrase “No Sale” across a bedroom mirror. Her character means it as an act of defiance. She’s indignant that the man she’s spent the night with has left money for her on the bedside table. In her first feature film, Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell reignites the war on sexism and misogyny by weaponizing the use of lipstick and other kinds of maquillage. Her visual schemes are smeared with the color red, a signal that danger lies ahead.
When Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the main character, puts on makeup she does so with as much purpose as an avenging angel. With her public face on, she’s supremely self-confident. Without it, her inner life is a mess. She’s a former medical student who dropped out of school. When we meet her she’s living at home with her parents and working in a cafe. Even her boss suggests that she could be doing more with her life than being surly with customers. Cassie replies with a clipped response: “I don’t want anything.”
To all outside appearances, that’s true. Whatever ambition the young Cassie once possessed is gone. But she does pursue a single obsession. Cassie goes to bars, pretends to get drunk and goes home with different men. It’s the first image that Emerald Fennell imagined as she began to work on the script. “The beginning moment for me was a drunk girl lying down on a bed, saying, ‘What are you doing?’ as someone tries to take her clothes off.” Known for her role as Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown, Fennell spoke with SF Weekly via Zoom about writing and directing her debut feature film.
“That girl suddenly becomes sober and then she sits up. That was the moment when I realized who she was and what this film was going to be,” Fennell explains. Cassie’s conducting a dangerous research experiment. Will the men force her to have sex without her consent? The answer is consistently dispiriting but she repeatedly plays out the scenario.
The trauma in Cassie’s life stems from her best friend’s suicide. Nina was a fellow medical student who was raped by another classmate. When allegations were brought to the administration’s attention, Nina’s case was dismissed as hearsay. Years before #MeToo featured prominently in the cultural consciousness, no one believed her. She subsequently dropped out of school and killed herself. Cassie can’t let go of the tragedy, so she relives it by ensuring the outcome will be different than it was for her friend.
Nina never appears on screen, not even in a flashback. Fennell made that choice because, “There’s an enormous amount of pressure from everyone, that includes the audience, for Cassie to move on.” Nina’s death happened a long time ago. By the time we’re introduced to Cassie, Nina’s become a symbolic figure, representing what can happen to a woman when she’s in an exceedingly vulnerable situation. Her absence, Fennell says, concentrates the audience’s attention on Cassie’s status as an outlier. “The person we meet is complicated, traumatised, difficult, often unsympathetic, and unkind,” she explains. “That’s what the movie is about.”
Cassie has been unable to find catharsis for her trauma because, as Fennell puts it, “it feeds on itself.” In an effort to change, or at least to lessen the hurt, Cassie decides to seek revenge upon Nina’s rapist and his accomplices. “As a journey, being motivated by revenge and anger is never going to end well for anyone,” the director notes. “And particularly for women when any kind of violence is involved.” For Fennell, it was crucial that in making a revenge movie, “a real person was at the center of it.”
Fennell, who was also the head writer for the second season of Killing Eve, says that there wasn’t one formative moment in her life that’s similar to Cassie’s. “I think it’s never just one moment,” she says. “It’s a cumulative awareness that your experience in your body is different [than a man’s]. That you will have to approach the world, in almost every way, more carefully.” Promising Young Woman also explores the complicated art of seduction.
“I’m interested in the gap of empathy that seduction requires,” the director says. “Whoever we are, whatever sexuality, you have to dehumanize the object of your affection to get what you want. If we’re lucky, you fall in love and they fall in love with us as we are. But in general, it requires a certain amount of smoke and mirrors.” Fennell believes the new conversation is, “Where are the limits of that?” Do you make yourself seem kinder than you are by telling little white lies. The movie looks at those interactions between men and women with a caustic eye.
The dating culture that Fennell grew up in informs her onscreen vision. “Lowering people’s inhibitions was a necessary part of making them sleep with you,” she says. “The men at the beginning and end of the movie all grew up believing — because, crucially, they want to believe — that stuff was OK, fair game, a loophole. They haven’t thought about it very deeply.”
Promising Young Woman doesn’t intend to be a corrective for men who behave badly. That’s only one of the messages contained within this stylized thriller. It’s also an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, albeit with Britney Spears on the soundtrack. Fennell’s tale of obsession is Vertigo-adjacent, as told from a woman’s point of view.
“What I sense about this film is that the only way of going forward is if we can talk about it, if we acknowledge and apologize,” she says. “There can only be a real victory, and not a pyrrhic one, if people admit that things that happened in the past were terrible and they shouldn’t have done it.”
Promising Young Woman opens on Friday, December 25 at the Capitol Drive-in in San Jose.