‘Promising Young Woman’ and the death of dialogue

The 93rd Academy Awards have now passed, and it’s time to reflect on the state of things. A strangely ramshackle production in Los Angeles’s Union Station, this year marked an austere turn from the pomp and circumstance of past ceremonies. Climate change, racial justice and, of course, COVID-19 were on the speakers’ lips that night. Speeches alluded to representation, to justice, to equality, all in favor of film’s hypothesized position as the harbinger of greater social change. The film industry tells us that this is a unique moment in history, yet that could not be further from the truth.

The Academy is no stranger to making befuddling choices and this year’s example lies within the Best Original Screenplay category. The prize went to Emerald Fennell’s film “Promising Young Woman,” and it’s important to begin by saying that there are a lot of things this film is not. This film is not realistic, but it’s also not fantastical. It is not character-driven, even if it tries to be. “Promising” does not commit to anything strong or affecting, even as it toys with sensitive social issues and, naturally, is worse off for it.

The film follows Cassandra (Carey Mulligan, “The Great Gatsby”), who dropped out of college following her best friend Nina’s suicide after Nina was raped at a college party. Nihilistic, Cassandra is unable to move on from this tragedy and adopts a new purpose as a sort of makeshift avenger of sex crimes. 

In one specific scene, Cassandra is taken home by a man looking to have sex with her. Of course, she’s drunk, and this is a crime of consent, but the film treats this subject with no actual weight. The dialogue adds up to a simple back and forth, where the man exclaims, “I’m a nice guy,” and then, “Are you trying to say I’m some sort of predator?” This all culminates in the man stating, “I thought we had a connection,” which is then returned with a terse “Then what’s my name?” and a slew of other questions prodding the man to give her any single piece of information someone would learn from simple small talk.

This is the climax of the scene and it shouldn’t be. We witness the gruesome actions of sexual assault, and the only thing the film gives in retaliation is a small bit of mainstream rhetoric before Cassandra simply leaves. The two characters are not people, rather mouthpieces of the two sides of an argument. The film amounts to an infantilization of an audience who couldn’t possibly handle a more subtle, actually challenging conversation. “Promising” simplifies the issue of sexual assault for the audience at every turn, giving a tour of the most surface-level points of the contemporary feminist rape culture conversation and offers nothing of worth in the way of character development, storyline and, at its most damning, artistic vision. 

In a better film, this scene would then become something more farcical, like the cult classic “Jennifer’s Body.” It could have been something with an intentionality that would have given the audience a twisted sense of retribution. Or this could also be treated with the severity that rape in the real world deserves, with actual drama and close care to the emotions of our main character (or Nina, for that matter.) But as it hangs uncertainly between the two, it becomes something sickening instead, with little gravity devoted to a serious topic but all of the simulation of such.

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