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Thursday, January 21, 2021

‘Promising Young Woman’ and the Evolution of Rape-Revenge Films

Spoiler warning: The article contains plot spoilers for Promising Young Woman.

Emerald Fennell‘s directorial feature debut quickly shifted from one of last year’s most anticipated to one of the most polarizing upon release. The division stems mostly from the shocking third act and the vastly different reads on the film. Promising Young Woman can be viewed as a psychological thriller, a scathing satire, or even a dark drama with thriller elements depending on experiences or perspective. That Fennell weaponizes rom-com tropes in her social analysis further blurs the genre lines. Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge film that doesn’t even depict or use the word rape, and even its implementation of revenge could be questioned. It’s another entry in a growing trend of rape-revenge films that venture outside of horror to deliver a provocative critique of modern rape culture.

Promising Young Woman opens to three colleagues blowing off steam at a bustling bar after work hours. They notice a woman sitting alone, too intoxicated to sit upright. One of the men (Adam Brody) decides to approach while his pals whoop and cheer. He asks the woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), if she has a means of getting home safely, then gently pushes her into allowing him to help. Once in the rideshare, however, he reroutes the driver to his place and proceeds to ply Cassie with alcohol. He coaxes her into his bed, all while she slurs protests. Cassie drops her drunk façade and catches him off guard. This opening sequence highlights Cassie’s unusual hobby of systematically dismantling the system one Nice Guy at a time.

Throughout the film, Cassie’s lingering trauma reveals itself. Once a promising young woman in med school, Cassie dropped out to take care of her life-long best friend, Nina, after a college party resulted in an assault from which she never recovered. Shunned from peers and authority figures that chose to preserve the promising young man’s future, Nina eventually ended her life. Cassie’s lingering survivor’s guilt and trauma meant she’s unable to move past it. Cassie lives at home with her parents, spends her days working a coffee shop, and moonlights as a sort of vigilante. Her method is entirely devoid of violence; she seems content to simply hold a mirror up to her would-be rapists.

‘Promising Young Woman’

Cassie’s vengeance initially lacks a specific aim. She can’t even bring herself to look up Nina’s assailant. At least, not until former classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) walks into her coffee shop one afternoon. It’s a twisted meet-cute that sparks a romance between the two, offering Cassie a glimmer of hope for a normal life. But Ryan still has ties to the med school social circle, and mentioning Nina’s attacker spurns an end game plot for revenge that’s catalyzed when a shocking video of that fateful night in college surfaces.

Cassie arrives at the fifth, and final stage of her plan with all hope shattered, the make-or-break divisive moment in the film. For the first time, Cassie threatens to resort to violence, and it ends tragically for her. For many, Cassie’s demise seems to remove all hope for survivors, but it does present an interesting point in the murky and confusing waters of rape culture. Murder is cut and dry, but there’s a general cultural confusion about consent, especially in instances like Nina’s, with a system that protects the accused. There’s no catharsis for Cassie, and therefore none for the viewer.

Fennell purposefully induces tonal whiplash in her debut, a metaphor for the emotional and psychological cycle of a trauma survivor. Promising Young Woman shifts from comedy to drama to romance to jarring thrills, covering all spectrums of genre unified by a candy-coated pop music aesthetic. It’s not fear that gives Cassie purpose but wrath and heartache. Fear isn’t the response the film is trying to induce, either.

Rape-revenge films rose to prominence in the ’70s thanks to easing censorship restrictions and a more mainstream cultural discussion of sexual politics. Like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left, the exploitation films that emerged during the era were attributed to horror and followed a distinct formula. These movies featured a graphic rape, followed by an equally graphic enactment of revenge by either the victim or an agent acting on their behalf. The explicit, violent, and exploitive nature of rape-revenge films became so synonymous with horror that the attribution has been tough to shake since. Movies don’t always fit tidily into textbook definitions of genre, especially not with the emerging trend in rape-revenge films. The topic of sexual assault is broad and complex, and adheres less and less to the simplified two-half structure of rape-revenge horror.

As notable film critic and scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes in the introduction of her book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, “Rape-revenge films, then, are fluid and elastic. Despite its common association with the horror film in the United States during the 1970s in particular, it spans genre, times, and national borders.” She chronicles cinema’s surprising and complicated history with sexual violence in the rape-revenge narrative, and never has the complexity of it been more evident than the present.

Natalia Leite’s ‘M.F.A.’

Much like Promising Young Woman, Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. follows a traumatized young woman on a quest for revenge while exposing the system that makes it difficult for real justice. Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is a grad student who eagerly accepts an invite to a party by her college crush. He isolates her there and rapes her. Later, she kills him in a fit of rage, and it sets her down a vigilante path to destroy men like her attacker. M.F.A. is far more firmly rooted in the thriller genre but presents an ambitious peek into the college setting in which these situations can thrive.

Similarly, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge spends little time on the inciting act. It focuses on an intense, French extremism style action-survival thriller with its leading lady outwitting and outlasting the men who want to snuff out living proof of their heinous crime. Fargeat sought to upend the male gaze and challenge preconceived notions about people similar to her heroine.

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle presents a morally conflicted cat-and-mouse game between Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle and her rapist. Like Elle’s contemporaries, Michèle eschews going to the police due to a bad experience and instead takes matters into her own hands most provocatively and peculiarly. While categorized as a thriller, Verhoeven employs dark humor to detail Michèle’s journey in freeing herself through sex and violence.

Isabelle Huppert in ‘Elle’

Recently, Shudder’s Hunted repurposes the Red Riding Hood fairy tale for its rape-revenge adjacent survival thriller, and the upcoming Violation presents a nonlinear take on the rape-revenge formula to convey a raw and aching psychodrama instead. Both are much more rooted in horror yet evoke wrath or tragedy.

The act of sexual violence naturally inspires fear and revulsion, which plays a big part in the rape-revenge film’s classification. But it’s because of their increasingly complicated and contradictive approaches that make the rape-revenge film’s singular attribution to horror not so simple. It’s less about the act itself and more about the filmmaker’s point. Promising Young Woman uses the characteristics of a romantic comedy or sex comedy to shame any viewer that would find humor in the situations Cassie intentionally pursues. Through her avenging angel, Fennell directs rage at those who allow sexual assault to happen just as much as the predators. If not more so. She makes the medicine easier to swallow with a bubblegum pink coating and bursts of levity.

Promising Young Woman is another entry in a growing trend of modern rape-revenge films that have departed horror in favor of weaponizing other genre tropes to support their core themes. While Fennell’s debut continues to inspire debate over its messaging, it succeeds in demonstrating that a rape-revenge film doesn’t have to belong to horror to elicit a lingering, visceral response.

Matilda Lutz in ‘Revenge’



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3649032/promising-young-woman-departure-horror-rape-revenge-films-spoiler/

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