Promising Young Woman: A Masterclass in Portraying the Femme Fatale and Sexual Assault




Femme Fatale. The moment I hear these words, I think of a tall, sexy woman with a huge cleavage in a body-con black dress with a thigh slit, high enough to show the woman's panties, or not if she's wearing none.


I think of a sexualised woman, giving men the "fuck me" eyes, sipping martini, and leading her kill to a secluded area.


She then begins stripping down, the camera sliding down her back as she unzips to her bare ass, and the dress slipping off the shoulder down to the floor after grazing her high-heeled legs.


Then comes the sexual act, the camera fixed on her like a man gazing at a stripper at a club. Her naked body, shown in parts, just enough to dodge the censors, but well enough to cause an erection.



I watched Promising Young Woman, and these images were shattered and replaced with a woman's face, hued in rage. The camera showed her like a person instead of a sex object -- a person seeking vengeance on her own terms.


The objectification of a femme fatale character is often justified by reasoning that her job is to kill using the art of seduction. And as the "Show, don't tell" rule goes, you have to see the objectified woman to believe that she really is seductive.


Cinematographer Benjamin Kračun breaks this by making the camera predatory, not from the point of view of the victims (the men), but from the point of view of the killer (the woman). The camera follows the point of view of Cassie, the femme fatale in Promising Young Woman, and sees the victims the way a woman would, like focusing on men dancing at clubs instead of women, showing close-ups of men's ecstatic faces, instead of a woman's ecstatic body.



An all-women camera department and director Emerald Fennell's perspectives were imperative in the way Cassie's character was filmed.


This human portrayal of a femme fatale extends beyond the camera. It also has to do with the costume design. Like any other femme fatale, Cassie too dresses sexually sometimes, but her sex appeal is not highlighted by accentuating her cleavage or striping her down to a corset. Instead, her sex appeal is highlighted by the way men look at her, talk about her, and act with her.


Costume Designer Nancy Steiner dresses her the way any other woman would be dressed instead of an over-the-top, stylised clothing.


Even in the nurse costume she wears towards the end, Steiner moves away from the male-designed costumes. There is no bra peeking out from an unzipped front, no tightly-pressed cleavage, skirt not too short that the stockings suspenders are visible. These factors have nothing to do with seducing a man. Men will prey on a woman wearing a potato sack. The only reason male filmmakers choose to show these parts is to cater to the male gaze of the audience.



Another aspect where, not just the cinematography shines, but the script and the acting do as well is with the way the film chooses to show sexual assault.


There are numerous films and series where the filmmakers have felt that an emotion isn't conveyed unless you see an entire act. And so they show a very detailed rape scene, however brutal it may be, and the audience appreciate it for the realistic portrayal when all it had managed to do is give an erection to guys who get off on this violence.

E.g. I Spit On Your Grave, 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria, Red Sparrow.



In Promising Young Woman, it is again only Cassie's face that the camera focuses on while she watches a horrifying video of her friend's rape.


And yet how do I, as the audience, know that it's horrifying? Carey Mulligan's acting along with the choice the cinematographer made to focus on her face, reminding us that the act is brutal, and must not be seen.



Conveying the heaviness and the brutality of rape can be done this way too. It can be done without showing a young woman's naked body being groped by a fully-clothed young man. The audience can be made to feel horror and distress without showing the crime.


For the cinematography to work so effectively, the script has to be no less than perfect. Emerald Fennell's sharp script from the revolting phrases that men utter to the indignant phrases that women speak. And the way Mulligan has delivered these lines with her focused and livid facial expressions, accurately evoking the right emotions every time -- I clapped and cheered, clenched my teeth and veered, slammed the table, teared, enraged and endeared.


The filmmaking of Promising Young Woman shows the right way to capture women on screen and the right way to capture violence against women on screen.


You feel disgust, rage, discomfort, sadness, grief, misery. You know the woman is seducing a man without having to see her being seductive. You know the men are gazing at her, without you having to gaze at her yourself. You know the crime is brutal, without you having to look at the criminal act. You know the victim has suffered, without having to see her bruised body. Such is the brilliance of Promising Young Woman.


Emerald Fennell has done what most male filmmakers couldn't do in years. She has given us a femme fatale who men would actually fear instead of just getting an erection from.



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