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Painful, but fun to watch. ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a ‘poison popcorn movie.’

"Promising Young Woman" writer-director Emerald Fennell.
“Promising Young Woman” writer-director Emerald Fennell grew up in a culture where the thinking was “Women’s bodies were sexy, so boys deserved to see them and touch them,” she writes.
(Matthew Lloyd / For The Times)

“WALK OF SHAAAAME!” It’s a gag, really, isn’t it? Seeing a woman stumbling home, shoes in hand, last night’s makeup under her eyes, her sparkly dress catching the judgmental light of day. Just like it’s a gag to see a girl wake up with a start and turning with slow dread to see the lump of a body in the bed next to her: Who is that? OOPS!

Girls and their bodies have been a punchline for a long, long time. In the movies as much as in life. High school boys hide in locker rooms, peer through cracks in doors, leave their webcams on so their friends can take a peek. Grown men wait patiently at bars, keeping an eye out for the drunkest woman to emerge at closing time. “Romances” begin in the midst of a blackout. And at parties, the girls’ red plastic cups are inevitably filled just that liiiittle bit more than the guys’ cups. Seduction by any means necessary. Popping your cherry however the hell you can. And any girl who is dumb enough to leave her body just lying around … well, she’s fair game.

When I was growing up, “raunch culture” and “banter” slathered a shiny peppermint gloss over something much more sinister. The message was clear: Women’s bodies were sexy, so boys deserved to see them and touch them, to photograph them and film them and talk about them and compare them and ridicule them and be disgusted by them. Girls had the upper hand, didn’t they, and so who cares if you had to resort to dirty tricks to even the playing field a little bit?

So what happens when abusing women is a joke? What happens when something cruel and damaging is normal behavior? In my teens and 20s, hooking up with drunk girls was depressingly commonplace. And, sadly, it’s something a lot of people still wouldn’t think twice about. So if you took a girl home who was completely hammered, and then she revealed to you that she was stone-cold sober, why would you be so freaked out? This is the premise of “Promising Young Woman,” and the moment it started for me. The drunk girl on the bed being undressed, suddenly — shockingly — revealing her sobriety.

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I’ve always loved the revenge movie genre, but I wanted to write something that felt like a revenge journey a real woman might go on. There’s a reason women rarely “gun up” (violence rarely ends well for women), so what might we do instead? In what ways can we exercise power, threaten or terrify? The protagonist, Cassandra, knows, because she is an expert at existential dread, partly because she is riven with it herself.

“Ten minutes in, I knew I just trusted her,” says Carey Mulligan of working with Emerald Fennell on the candy-colored revenge-thriller.

This dread was at the heart of the film for me. Revenge is so frightening because it comes from a place of suffering, of terrible grief and hopelessness. Vengeance is not noble; it is the path that wears down the traveler, the knife that cuts the holder — the last resort. The impact that this kind of journey would take on a real person has always been the thing that interested me most. Was it possible to make a revenge movie that felt true? That had all the pleasures and the tropes of the genre but subverted in a specifically female and painfully true way? And, most important, could it also be fun to watch? I wanted to write something that didn’t feel like medicine, that would be accessible and gripping and funny, even at its darkest. A film that anyone could watch and discuss: a poison popcorn movie.

For me, all of the writing is done in my head. I realize this sounds idiotic, but what I mean is that I don’t put pen to paper until the very end. So for years I live in the world, going from room to room. Not a part of it exactly, more like a ghost. Watching, feeling the unwashed sheets in Jerry’s apartment, stuck in the cloying vanilla fog of Cassie’s parents’ house, dancing to “Boys” by Charli XCX with my shoes sticking to the clammy floor. I’ll live in there until every place, and every person, feels right.

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But being inside the room means that sometimes you get trapped. Things can happen in these places that you don’t expect, that you don’t like. The woods can be darker than you thought they’d be, and further away. Doors can lock without you noticing. In “Promising Young Woman,” I found this happened to me a lot, and it was when I knew I was finally ready to write it down.

In life, things so rarely happen the way we mean for them to, or want them to. Things get away from us, our best plans go wrong, and we never really know ourselves the way we think we do. We all think we’re good people. So what would you say to the person who turned up at your door with the news that you’re not? That you might, in fact, be a really bad person. A villain. How would you justify yourself? That is the real horror movie; it’s not just what someone might do to us, but what we are willing to do ourselves when we hope no one is watching.


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