Carey Mulligan deserves an Oscar nomination as a femme fatale striking fear in the hearts of men in “Promising Young Woman”. Cassie (Mulligan) is a vigilante of sorts, as she frequently pretends to be inebriated in local watering holes, dance clubs, and Irish bars. She then terrifies her aggressors when they overstep their bounds. Director/writer Emerald Fennell’s sobering – but also playful – screenplay takes dark turns and steers into some levity with Bo Burnham’s breezy, accessible arc. Ryan (Burnham) could be the male outlier to melt Cassie’s heart, as Mulligan masterfully portrays a lady standing on a knife’s edge between potential bliss and endless cynicism.
Well, Carey and Emerald graciously hosted a Zoom call with film critic Jeff Mitchell (ArtHouseFilmWire, Phoenix Film Festival) and other critics for an enlightening and thoughtful chat. The ladies spoke about Cassie’s methods for revenge, the film’s prominent color schemes, and much more! Please be warned: the interview does reveal some spoilers, including the reasons for Cassie’s motivation.
“Promising Young Woman” is playing in theatres and is also available to stream at home. (ArtHouseFilmWire’s “Promising Young Woman” review)
Q: People I know who are generally not interested in small, independent films are talking about this movie. Emerald, when writing the film, were you trying to create a dialogue?
EF: When you start (writing), you’re just trying to tell the story, but yes, as it went on, I wanted to be honest and think about what revenge is. Inevitably, the truth or an approximation of the truth can be provocative. In terms of making it accessible, I definitely (wanted) to make (the film) accessible, (but) I didn’t want it to be a lecture or medicine or a dodge. It (will) hopefully reach a wide audience because I do think this stuff is regrettably, unbelievably common, but still something hard to discuss in an open and widespread way.
Q: Because the film explores sensitive subjects, such as rape, what kind of research or preparation did you do to authenticate the story?
CM: What was so immediately obvious to me (while) reading the script was how regrettably commonplace so much of this was. The biggest challenge in my approach was so myopic in a way. I just wanted to be as truthful as I could about this one experience. There (are) endless amounts out there to read about these issues, and so, of course, it’s important to have a broader understanding. It felt like such a tragedy, a familiar story, that there are countless examples of things like this happening to people (who) you know, people (who) you love.
I think every woman has a connection to somebody who has been through something close to this. For myself, there’s a very helpful book by Jon Krakauer called “Missoula” that investigated the subject from a lot of different angles. The majority of (my) work before the film was with Emerald, just talking about our shared experiences.
EF: It’s really a film about the kind of culture that I grew up (in), and the culture that every girl I know grew up in, which is probably the same worldwide as it is in America and England. There’s nothing in this film, sadly, that wasn’t in comedies that I was growing up with. The conversations that I’ve had since the film came out – with people I know and people I don’t know – is what Madison (Alison Brie) says to Cassie, which was, “Things happened all the time.”
Q: Can you speak to what ultimately Cassie aims to achieve, whether it’s accountability or revenge, or is it something else entirely?
EF: It is a revenge movie, but it’s a revenge movie about how revenge is sort of impossible at the moment and futile, which as a pitch, it (is) quite bleak. (Emerald laughs) I’m glad that I didn’t go with that pitch. How can you find a resolution? How can you find justice when it’s such an uphill struggle? It’s so much easier to let it go.
It’s just one person actually saying, “I won’t let it go because I shouldn’t, and I can’t.”
It’s not only other people in the movie who are incredibly uncomfortable with that, but (for Cassie), the option of letting go is so irresistible. It’s irresistible to us as an audience, and it’s irresistible to her. To have somebody going on this journey, not just for themselves, but (also) for their friend, because of the injustice. She’s (also) really trying to forgive herself. She’s begging for somebody to prove her wrong. Mostly, it’s an exercise in futility. It does make the film sound very dour. I also hope that there’s some hope (in) there, and hope for redemption and forgiveness.
CM: From the outset, (the movie) is so much about love and loyalty and friendship. (Cassie is) somebody who will go to that degree for their friend. That comes from a place of really deep love, and there is a part of her that’s stuck as a young girl wanting to be forgiven, wanting to be absolved of the whole thing. The revenge narrative doesn’t really play into (that) plane. I don’t think it’s even on a conscious level. I don’t think (revenge) is a word that would come into her vocabulary. She’s simply putting something right that’s so wrong.
EF: I love the revenge genre, but I’ve never felt like I’ve seen a woman exacting revenge in a particularly female way. There’s nothing I love more than a bloodbath, but (violence) is not something that would ever personally occur to me. It’s just not innate, I suppose. What power do (women) have? That power is different but in no way less impactful. That’s what is brilliant about Cassie and amazing about Carey’s performance. She is violent, but the violence that she commits, the maiming that she does, is completely psychological. It’s so much more harrowing.
Q: Carey, this your first film as a producer. Did it change your experience as an actor on the set?
CM: I felt so lucky to work on (the movie) at an earlier stage and watch the production take shape. It felt like a privilege. I wish (this film) came out when I was 18. My role (as an actor was amazing). I was such a jobbing actor on-set. I was just there to be told where to stand. It was very liberating. I just had so much faith in Emerald as a director (and) had absolute faith in her vision and felt like I could have fun for the most part.
Q: Can you speak about the look of the film? What made you choose bright pinks and blues and the old-fashioned decorum at Cassie’s parents’ house?
EF: Every single visual choice tells you so much about the character. So often, we feel that people in distress look distressed. If we think of Cassie as an addict or a self-harmer, (she knows) how to hide. (She knows) how to stop (others) from asking too many questions, both the people (who she loves) and people on the street. For Cassie, it’s doubly-important because in her own life, she’s in costume. Like a lot of women, she is very, very adept in using her costumes, her nails, and her hair to hide her pain and seem innocuous and seem innocent.
It makes sense that the film felt the same way. The things that we still think of as light and frivolous – light pink, Britney Spears, and (other) things in this movie – are often not treated seriously. Also, these are things that I love, and this is how a lot of people’s lives feel and look, so it felt right to me.
The specific thing (about) Cassie’s parents’ house, it tells us so much about her mother. She’s just a woman for whom the surface (covers) everything. (It covers) up all (the) pain. (The house) is the most hyper-oppressive, feminine space. There couldn’t be more cherubs. There couldn’t be more crystal. When you look closer, you can’t sit on anything. The beautiful, intricate tablecloth is plasticated, so no one makes a mark. This stuff tells you so much about the house, the world (in which) Cassie grew up.
Jeff Mitchell – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and ArtHouseFilmWire on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @ArtHouseFilmWre, respectively.