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Promising Young Woman: A Lesson in Catharsis

Promising Young Woman: A Lesson in Catharsis

Guest piece by Elly Jones


As I watched Connie Britton’s Dean Walker sit behind her impressive desk and pinch her eyebrows together with sympathy and tilting her head in understanding, as Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra reminds her of exactly why she dropped out of medical school, I could already feel a grimace begin to form across my face. When the words “none of us want to admit that we’ve made ourselves vulnerable” tumbled from her mouth, I instinctively cast my eyes towards the fraying carpet below me, struggling to meet the screen as the words crammed themselves into my brain; meeting the judgmental thoughts that had already been squatting there for months.

There it was, the echo of everything I had ever been taught about keeping myself safe, laid out within a film that already had me wincing with painful understanding. Reflecting the very notion of blame that I so despised, but have often been so eager to scold myself with. I am no stranger to the murky waters of sexual assault, of being unable to define your experience despite how heavily it sits upon your chest. I could not help but wonder just how many other keen audience members recognised it also.

Emerald Fennel’s revenge thriller Promising Young Woman had me at the first trailer. Bright images of Carey Mulligan in various states of drunken disguise, that sexy little strings cover of Brittany Spears’ Toxic and a premise around a woman seeking revenge on sexual assault, all had me heavy breathing in anticipation. I was expecting a blood bath of sick mind games and torture, a rape-revenge film that you could really sink your teeth into and feel completely justified in your blood lust. That is not what I got, and I am so thrilled to say so.

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Catharsis through cinema

Instead, Fennel delivers a true lesson in catharsis through cinema. An emotional release for its audience that transcends the hyper-reality essence that can so often be found within a revenge plot. Instead, Promising Young Women is grounded in its hard truth, a far more sobering yet thrilling experience than one might have expected.

The narrative is about more than just a thirst for violent justice against both overt and subtle abuse against women; it’s a ghost story. Cassandra is haunted by what has happened to Nina and therefore what has happened to her. She’s looking for an exorcism, a way to cut out the kind of fear that feels both hysterical and necessary. She is haunted by it and, in the end, she will haunt those who have not changed. Aren’t we all haunted by something similar, and don’t we too need to exorcise the demons within us?

This isn’t a film about the evils of men and men alone. This is about a world in which sexual assault is so deeply ingrained in our normal lives that we are all affected by it. Fennel doesn’t encourage any kind of witch hunt, instead, she’s asking you to question yourself and those around you. And how we can all work towards cutting out the seemingly never-ending insidious victim-blaming culture.

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Empowering feelings of recognition

Through these running themes, one can find a sense of cathartic release while witnessing Cassandra’s story. While the journey of catharsis can be one of healing, it can encourage both troubling and empowering feelings of recognition. There are moments within Promising Young Woman that chime out like a symphony of power and triumph. This includes the scene in which Cassandra reveals her true hand to the reptilian-like Neil.

Something about the way she strides towards him, completely sure of herself, utterly at ease with the power she has, made my limbs twitch in envious excitement. A smirk began to sting within the corners of my mouth; I could have salivated at how delicious it was. The sheer dumbfounded horror of his discovery that she is not as vulnerable as she seems, that his power has been swiped from beneath him in some cruel trickery.

How I have ached for that kind of feeling. To approach those who have made me feel unsafe or uneasy with a complete sense of control and strength; the dream for those left vulnerable by having been made to feel weak. It evoked an intense, visceral reaction to age-old anger within me.

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Vacant beyond distraction 

While seeing Cassandra dupe these nightclub predators helped to release such bold emotion in a positive sense, not every scene felt so empowering. Cassandra as a character is just fantastically written. She’s genuinely funny, quick-witted and sharp as hell. Mildly dead behind the eyes but who isn’t when they’ve been through such trauma? Vacant in a way that is beyond basic distraction. I recognized it, understood it and noticed the subtle differences in how her jaw relaxes or stiffens depending on who she is around.

Then when she meets Ryan, that hope for something good and organic with another human, the fear of history repeating itself and the even bigger fear that maybe you deserved it all to begin with. I felt vulnerable seeing parts of myself within her character, knowing where her motivation comes from, and understanding her reluctance to enter an emotional relationship. I began to question myself and my decisions, the people I had pursued and those who I pushed away. It is soon easy to realise catharsis is as much about confronting the difficult emotions bottled within you as anything else.

Reflect upon experiences

Promising Woman encourages you to do just that. It implores you to reflect upon your experiences, both good and bad. To look at the parts we play within a culture of normalised sexual abuse. We all need to be trying to cut it out because it affects us all.

Whether it is your own assault, a friend’s story, the warnings your parents gave you as children, the comment that your boyfriend makes that coaxes a wave of unease to unfurl within you, a remark your friend makes that has you double-checking you’ve heard correctly, a mistake you have made, a rumour you have started, someone’s secret you told, the judgements we’ve all made and the jokes we’ve let slip.

Catharsis is far more complex than we can often accept. Releasing the kinds of emotions we have long repressed is a journey of acceptance, change and healing. When experienced through the joy of cinema one can truly allow themselves to live and explore through the safety of fiction. Promising Young Woman gives us the opportunity to experience justice and rebellion while also encouraging us to take responsibility for a culture of our own making, resulting in an outstanding study of catharsis.

More from Elly here


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