This is just one of the memories that came to my mind when I watched Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.” The movie transported me to some of the worst times of my life when I tried to pick up the pieces after my abuser and ex-boyfriend turned my friends on me as I accused him of rape. I saw myself in a victim named Nina, despite the fact that she was never shown in the movie. And in Cassie, Nina’s friend and the main character of the film, I saw my friend who was in desperate need of my forgiveness. “Promising Young Woman” left this sexual assault survivor empty and desperate, as if I would never be healed again.
Much of the film tells the truth about what it means to be a sexual assault survivor and the lack of punishment for abusers; Fennell doesn’t hold back in his critique of rape culture and the way it permeates every inch of society. Yet “Promising Young Woman” encounters two major obstacles in its desire to question justice and create a stimulating narrative: its portrayal of Cassie and Nina’s relationship, and its breathtaking ending.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who spends her days drinking coffee and her nights pretending to be drunk in order to get men to take advantage of her and show them their true colors. Cassie is on a mission to avenge her best friend, Nina, who was raped and then killed herself seven years ago. A man ruined Nina’s life and was not punished because he was seen as a promising young man. Since those in power wouldn’t do justice, Cassie takes it upon herself to punish those responsible.
“Promising Young Woman” is imbued with a neon pink haute-femme aesthetic reminiscent of what we see in Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge film “Revenge” (2017). But unlike Fargeat, Fennell carries on that imagery, painting a bright image of a despised woman who arms her femininity instead of losing it. The pigtails and pink that make women look vulnerable are worn like armor, a reminder that nothing here is what it seems.
Every gesture Cassie makes is in memory of Nina. Every punishment is decreed because of Nina. All talks about Nina. But Nina’s voice is never heard. It’s a ghost, silently floating on the outskirts, we’re talking about, not for. Yes, it’s a movie about Cassie’s grieving process, but it comes at the cost of a sexual assault survivor stripped of her personality. There is a statement to be made on how this has already been done by the whole patriarchal system; no one remembers his name, a man took priority over his well-being, the list goes on. But without further introspection of the film on this idea, the construction of Nina becomes fragile. She becomes an idea that Cassie has based her entire identity on rather than a full human being.