Emerald Fennell's new revenge thriller Promising Young Woman struck a nerve with its take on rape culture
'This movie is not supposed to be medicine,' says the writer and director
At the first test screening for Emerald Fennell's directorial debut Promising Young Woman, a fight broke out between two audience members over one of the film's pivotal scenes.
"Somebody was angry about the scene and the other person wasn't," recounted Fennell in an interview with guest host Talia Schlanger on CBC Radio's Q. "The person who was angry was shouting and the person who wasn't said, 'Well, we like it. So if you don't like it, you can leave!'"
In hindsight, the British actress-turned-filmmaker said the incident was "incredibly glamorous and provocative," but at the time, she was concerned the shouting match would jeopardize the film's distribution — it didn't. If anything, the controversy at the test screening spoke to the impact the film would eventually have on a wider audience.
WATCH | Official trailer for Promising Young Woman:
A colourful and complicated film
Promising Young Woman is a genre-blending black comedy/revenge thriller that follows Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), who lives a secret double life in a mission to avenge her best friend who was a victim of rape. By day, Cassie works in a coffee shop, but by night she prowls bars, pretends to be drunk and then goes home with self-styled "nice guys" to teach them a lesson.
"It's one of those movies that is really difficult to talk about because so much of it is sort of designed to be, I guess, a little bit maze-like," Fennell told Schlanger in an effort to avoid spoilers.
Underlining the message that beauty can be deceptive, the film's colourful and poppy visuals stand in contrast to its serious subject matter, offering a fresh perspective on toxic masculinity and rape culture.
"I guess I really wanted to look at a movie about what happens when you grow up in a culture, or you live in a culture, where something that is incredibly damaging has become normalized," Fennell explained. "And then how people, you know, live in the aftermath of that."
No villains, just 'good people'
Promising Young Woman turns the revenge thriller genre on its head and twists story tropes to mess with the audience's expectations of who's good and who's not.
"[I'm] not really interested in villains," said Fennell. "I don't really think they exist. So I'm much more frightened by the lies we tell ourselves to get what we want."
I think all of us would rather be punched in the face than shown that we're not good people.- Emerald Fennell
She noted that the film is "disconcerting" because it feels real, which may leave audiences second-guessing or interrogating their own morality. "I think all of us would rather be punched in the face than shown that we're not good people."
Despite this, Fennell said the film is meant to be fun and not overly didactic. "This movie is not supposed to be medicine. ... I wanted it to be as accessible and as much of a popcorn movie as we [could] make it."
Hear guest host Talia Schlanger's full conversation with Emerald Fennell, in which the actress also speaks about her role as Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown, near the top of this page.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Stuart Berman.