A version of this story about “Promising Young Woman” and director Emerald Fennell first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Much of the talk about Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” has been about how the film subverts the revenge genre, tempting the audience to beg for blood only to be left with something more disturbing. The real trick, though, is that it twists another genre: comedy.
That’s because Fennell has seen plenty of comedies where the joke is that the drunk girl goes home with the guy and he “gets lucky”–and what’s not funny at all is how common this setup has become.
“Really, it’s just taking material we’ve seen before, but we’re laughing at a different person,” Emerald Fennell said of the film, in which Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a young woman who sets up men by pretending to be drunk and then confronts them when they try to take advantage of her. “We’re laughing with Cassie, we’re not laughing at her. But of course the laughter is, like all of the things in this film, a sort of salve for something much more painful.”
Fennell said that “Promising Young Woman” was always meant to be a comedy, because humor is the form she uses to discuss difficult things. Mulligan’s character wields her candy-colored Instagram aesthetic, her sarcastic demeanor and her understated wit as weapons to get out of danger–but she’s also in distress, because this is a movie about sexual violence and how abusers and enablers hide behind norms to pretend they’re not part of the problem. “Promising Young Woman’s” comedy has a way of forcing us to realize how wrong we are.
“We still have a very established discourse and visual language and film language for how serious things are discussed, and I don’t think those things necessarily reflect people’s experiences in life,” Fennell said. “It makes us so vulnerable laughing, so it’s important for this film to make people laugh, because your guard is down and it makes it easier to have a conversation.”
“Promising Young Woman’s” comedic tone was so distinctive and so intricately woven into the film’s revenge story that Fennell and the team at Focus Features even debated cutting three trailers for the film, one that was the thriller, another that was a rom-com and the third that would be the more grimly serious sexual assault drama.
The performances were crucial in shaping the film’s tone. Though “Promising Young Woman” has a lot of comedians in its cast, Fennell told each of them to play things straight and never for laughs, an approach that’s anchored by Mulligan.
“What’s so crucial for her, and for me and for who would play Cassie in this movie was she’s just completely real, completely grounded,” Fennell said. “We’re never going to get a capital letters ‘performance’ from her. You will get as close an approximation there could ever be of a real person. That meant that whatever, however heightened the tone might’ve felt, however allegorical the film becomes, or fairy tale-like or all of the things that it can be, she was always the real person at the center of it. Her performance absolutely glues everything together.”
One shot in the film’s introduction, she said, distills the whole movie. As Cassie walks home after dealing with her would-be rapist, we get a glimpse of what looks to be blood on her clothes. As the camera pans up, it turns out to be ketchup, and she’s taking a bite out of a hot dog.
“Eating a hot dog is a sledgehammer of a phallic metaphor, I would say,” Fennell admitted. “I’ve never really felt like subtlety is necessary. We’ve all been crushed by subtlety as a concept, and I’m all for being majorly unsubtle when it calls for it. All that’s to say that, yeah, it was important to me to lead people down a path–you’ve got to make that path seem familiar and safe to get them to where it’s not safe or familiar, but it’s too difficult to turn back.”
The film was written before the #MeToo movement, and it didn’t change because of it. Like “Get Out,” another hilarious, genre-bending film, “Promising Young Woman” was designed to pull back the curtain on a line of white liberal thinking that people didn’t realize they had been doing for much of their lives.
“What do you do when this is something that people have laughed at for years, and people have kind of been encouraged to do?” she said. “How do we all get past that, and get past the shame and the guilt and the horror? It’s so endemic that it’s got to be something that we start talking about. You can’t just pretend it’s never happened.”
Read more from the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue here.