Promising Young lady' befuddles watchers. That is the thing that makes it splendid.

 The film doesn't simply go amiss from kind guidelines: It doubts our passionate interest in them

A lot of films enrapture watchers; hardly any leave them as undecided as Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young lady." Its crowd appears to be not able to choose whether they delighted in the film — or were even intended to appreciate it.

Thus critics who commend its depiction of trauma also warn against “the tonal whiplash” of its various plot twists; they acknowledge it as “a provocative feminist subversion of the rape-revenge genre” but also complain that the film “can’t decide whether it wants the audience to cheer for its heroine’s cleverness and pluck or worry about her mental and physical safety.

 In all of these critical accounts, not only does that jumble of narrative elements lead to confusion, that confusion is interpreted a failure on the filmmakers’ part, exposing an aesthetic and political hollowness. Why, after all, would a film set out to confuse the audience?

Fennell’s movie confuses spectators, because it doesn’t simply deviate from the rules of the rape-revenge genre: It questions the value of genre rules, period. Like its heroine, Cassie, it looks appealing and easy to understand: a gum-popping, Technicolor critique of rape culture. Watch the trailer, and you might expect the film to be “9 to 5” meets “Hard Candy”: a feminist revenge comedy for the #MeToo era. But Fennell’s movie does more than just update old formulas. It shows how those formulas inhibit viewers from grasping psychological and moral complexity.

From thrillers to bromances, lesbian period dramas to comic book franchises, genres are how film producers, distributors, and audiences communicate. As Rick Altman explains, genres work like languages, in that they follow both semantic and syntactic conventions.

The semantic rules govern “genre’s building blocks” — stock characters, settings and so on — while syntactic rules organize “the structures into which [those blocks] are arranged.” In a rape-revenge movie, for instance, such building blocks include a beautiful (usually White) young female victim and a savage stranger. Salient narrative structures include one or more horrifying assaults that someone will subsequently avenge (typically the young woman or a male relative). 

Viewers can go to rape-revenge films expecting a certain kind of catharsis: Sexual violence will occur, its victim will be believed, and the wrongdoers will be punished. That’s an arc we rarely see in the real world, which makes these movies almost comforting, despite their graphic depictions of assault.


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