A Promising Young Woman

I was fairly horrified by the film ‘A Promising Young Woman’, especially the murder at the end.

I thought to write a review, but then, what do I really have to say worth reading? This is not a question that should haunt a blogger. The blog is oftentimes the territory of the vain and self-aggrandizing, and I think most readers accept this as a caveat going in.

I’d heard a bit about the film beforehand; most notably that a brouhaha had arisen after a Variety Magazine reviewer had made derogatory comments about Carey Mulligan’s appearance as a means for calling into question her casting as the star.

My excellent chum, the skilful and sagacious Emma Westwood, recommended it as a rape/revenge film, saying that we should discuss it later as she was interested to know what I thought.

I hadn’t heard it classified as a rape/revenge film, although the description makes perfect sense. Part of the plot mechanism is to reveal the victim driving the story as the film’s protagonist, Cassie, works through the machinations of her revenge.

I studied rape/revenge as a genre at University, ghoulishly making my way through the genre at a time when I was callow, and ignorant of rape as a crime. I watched as many films as I could manage, searching out the ones my tutors and lecturers felt were important.

I maintain that the bulk of reading and watching is as necessarily disciplined an undertaking as training an athlete; it’s often uncomfortable and unpleasant, but the broader and richer your conditioning, the more durable and capable you become. It also increases your sensitivity to the world and your capacity to engage with it.

Genre cinema is a great place to go looking for ideas. And rape/revenge as a genre tells us a lot about the human animal and how profound insight and prurient, possibly depraved indulgence springs from the same incubation.

The mother of all modern rape revenge films is probably I Spit on Your Grave. Censors did a lot to keep this beyond the reach of teenaged eyeballs, and I didn’t see it until somewhere in my twenties.

I think it’s an example of exploitation cinema at its strongest; the plot is that a group of local hooligans, one of whom is intellectually disabled, gang-rape a young writer holidaying in a cabin near the woods. She exacts a brutal revenge on them; stalking, sometimes seducing and eventually murdering them for their crime.

The marketing for I Spit on Your Grave was exactly what exploitation cinema thrived on; viewers were attending a carnival of the grotesque, to see something so outlandish and beyond the realm of what they were ordinarily allowed by the ethics and mores of civilisation to experience as anything other than a victim – or a perpetrator.

The most gruesome feature of I Spit on Your Grave is probably the gang rape, where the men chase the woman through the woods, tearing off her clothes and each taking a turn with her. By the end, she is naked, covered in mud and screaming like an animal. It was the most traumatic thing I had seen on screen at that point in my life.

I Spit on Your Grave has been derided as the work of ‘morons with cameras’, but the lack of craft evident in the rest of the film doesn’t detract from the power of this sequence. For this viewer, the gang-rape was a brutal, gruelling reality.

Since that time, I have had experience of rape and its repercussions through a number of my intimate partners.

One of my partners had been raped on a number of occasions, by a number of different people. She had been raped by a family member as a young teenager, and then gang-raped again in her mid-teens by a group of four men when she had snuck out at night.   

During our relationship, she had been assaulted by her ex-boyfriend when he searched her car and discovered a gift I had given her. During the argument, he had thrown her face-down on the bed, sat on her hips and took her head in his hands, attempting to break her nose down her face with his thumbs.

I remember her calling from the women’s shelter the next day, describing what had happened. Unsure of what to do, I went to the police station and repeated what I’d been told to a constable, feeling like a bystander as the succession of details came tumbling out of my mouth.

I was actually quite surprised how they gathered their own momentum as I regurgitated them, each one falling onto the counter like some horrible teratoma as it passed through the membrane of my imagination and into the air.

Anyhow, I’d watched all these films before this time and I really admired the way they worked. I think exploitation cinema has a degree of wonder about it; by presenting physical acts of transgression purely for kinetic spectacle, something profound happens, which is almost absent from mainstream cinema; the spectator takes full responsibility for what they see, and is permitted a personal response that isn’t positioned or channelled for them, as it is in a mainstream film.

A Promising Young Woman is a little bit clunky as a screenplay, but the film itself doesn’t suffer. It also has a kind of patina that is real exploitation; it’s not presented as reality. In this case, you could sub-title the film ‘Attack of the Beta Males’, and I wonder if the filmmaker, Emerald Fennell, doesn’t view the kind of sickening atrocity at the heart of the film as the act of a lesser man.

I felt trapped as the film went on, just as I did in I Spit on Your Grave, amongst a gallery of thoroughly undesirable, essentially unsympathetic characters. In fact, the protagonist is the least repulsive, as opposed to being actually likeable. But then, maybe everyone is a shade of less than likeable when they are at war.

When the film reached its denouement, I was utterly horrified. I just don’t think I can watch a man murder a woman anymore and not feel anything other than horror.

Afterwards, I watched Dredd, the 2012 film of the Judge Dredd comic book, written by English virtuoso Alex Garland to redress the abysmal travesty of the Stallone version committed in the 90s.

I used to read Judge Dredd when I was on holiday camp as a kid. I wasn’t allowed to; I had to sneak them from the pile of magazines my older cousin kept in his bedroom. I remember that same combination of sickness and elation instilled by Dredd and his gritty, violent Guignol.  

And now I find Dredd murdering weird, freaky-looking drug addicts in futuristic high-rise commission flats both comforting and reassuring.       

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