An accumulation of stylistic techniques in Emerald Fennell’s, A Promising Young Woman.

3500 WORDS

Originally written for the MA in SCREEN PRODUCTION (SCREENWRITING) Screen Criticism & Analysis module, at the University of West England (UWE) in March 2022.

Warning, this essay is riddled with spoilers.

The production design, editing style, composition and cinematic techniques of Emerald Fennell’s film, A Promising Young Woman, evolve to illustrate the fate of characters in-scene and also signpost the ultimate fate of the protagonist, Cassandra (Cassie) Mulligan.

3500 WORDS Originally written for the MA in SCREEN PRODUCTION (SCREENWRITING) Screen Criticism & Analysis module, at the University of West England (UWE) in March 2022. Warning, this essay is riddled with spoilers. The production design, editing style, composition and cinematic techniques of Emerald Fennell’s film, A Promising Young Woman, evolve to illustrate the fate…


“…we need to consider the significance acquired by the individual element by virtue of context: the narrative situation, the “world” of the film, the accumulating strategies that the filmmaker adopts”

John Gibbs (Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation, 26).

Whilst actually sober in clubs where men are looking for hook-ups, Cassie adopts the guise of a woman being inebriated to an almost comatose state. Night after night this wins the attention of fake ‘nice guys’ who feign assistance then consistently find ways to justify rape when they get her home. Once their intent is definite, Cassie turns off this performance and switches to intense admonishment designed to provoke realisation, regret and sow doubt. These interventions are driven by the (heavily implied) suicide of Cassie’s lifelong friend who was gang raped at a college party many years ago. An encounter with a ‘nice guy’ from college prompts Cassie to exact revenge more directly on the perpetrators and observers of her friend’s rape, all who have all managed to move on with their lives.

By paying particular attention to the two main opening scenes we can understand how The film begins to build its stylistic language and establishes its moral position immediately after the first credit sequence of dancing overweight and ‘unfit’ men in a nightclub of almost entirely reds – the decor, the ambient and practical lighting, the drinks, even the straws for the drinks. Blue lights flash over and without consequence to the men as they tell us what women should do. Paul, one of the oblivious men calls out “Jesus. Would you look at that. Good God almighty”. When seen with the immediately subsequent shot we have permission to look for religious iconography. It is delivered immediately.

Here is Cassie, face hidden, ‘crucified’ in a red hell on a huge, red leather, deep buttoned, gold studded bench that has a vertical section to complete the crucifix. Ignored by other clubbers, She is slumped but with her arms out as if pinned. We don’t know who this woman is yet but there is enough to suggest she is a victim in waiting, and the iconography tells us she could also be a martyr. Mirrors fill the rest of the frame, arranged concave to centralise reflection on the voyeurs who include the men at the bar and us, the audience. The men cannot see themselves and of course neither can we.

The camera tracks in slightly to Cassie as she is punished by the continuing dialogue of Paul, the gaze of Jez, the production design and the camera closing in on her. Not only is she pre-judged and blamed, but her supposed absent friends are too – a full abdication of responsibility via Paul’s dialogue. Jez approaches to see if she is okay but there is little doubt as to his true intent.

After a short taxi ride, we reach Jez’s apartment where the production design shows us how to further read the film and develop our understanding of Cassie. The apartment is bare, there’s a dartboard on the wall, a rusty metal USA flag hanging above the sofa and a messy coffee table of snack detritus. This is Jez’s home and he is the first of the men in the film to be described acutely by their home environments. Cassie and Jez sit far frame left and Jez slides even closer to visually and physically trap Cassie against the sofa arm. A one way kiss is executed before Jez leads Cassie to the bedroom and she flops semiconscious on the bed. The camera is positioned to look vertically down over the top third of the bed. Again symmetry and again with arms out. It’s a double bed but Cassie’s head rests on a single pillow and the wooden side tables are arranged flush to the bed covers but with gaps above and below. The implied patibulum is further pronounced by the lighting of the tabletops and keeping the wall and floor in darkness. Cassie weakly protests as Jez removes her underwear and the cut returns to show Cassie, dimly lit, prone on the bed with the crucifix and multicoloured fairy lights above the bed creeping into the top of the frame. A synth string is introduced just before Cassie opens her eyes. She looks straight at camera for five seconds, calling ‘hey’ to interrupt what up until now seemed like her inevitable violation. The dialogue is addressed in-film to interrupt Jez but the gaze interrupts our engagement with the fiction. A new rule is being established – we are not separate from the film’s context. We cut to Jez, oblivious in his indulgence, and then back to the bed shot – where we see only the very last moment of Cassie removing herself from the crucifix and leaving frame as she sits up. This shot is not necessary to communicate the action but it does make it clear to us that this victimhood phase is over. The edit takes us back to Jez one more time before cutting to Cassie in symmetry and from Jez’ POV. Small winglike shapes are made by the multi-coloured fairy lights.

We look up at Cassie now, rather than down and her eye-line is directed straight through the lens at both Jez and us, the audience, as she asks for a second time, ‘What are you doing?’. The opening of the eyes breaks our immersion, the music has the effect of keeping us connected to the world of the film. This allows a different violation of the rules, both of character and audience expectation, i.e. that Jez should have been allowed to continue. and neither should we.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” 

Laura Mulvey (Visual And Other Pleasures, 14)

This rise from the bed and challenge to the camera could not be more unequivocal. We are allowed to commit all the sins as the audience then called to account for our complicity

We see Cassie perform this ritual to a total of three ‘random’ men, and the filmmaker establishes that Cassie has done this for a long time by way of a notebook containing a tally approaching 150. Twelve minutes into the film, a potentially genuine nice guy, Ryan, from Cassie’s past college days enters via the coffee shop where she works. As their romantic relationship develops and a lighter tone of comedy is deployed, much of the style established in the opening is diluted, but its occasional appearance directs us where to pay attention. Cassie’s actions throughout this lighter part of the film are congruent to the settings. Lighting is consistently soft and natural across the coffee shop, restaurant and hospital locations for this part of the narrative. Cassie’s body language and expression match the hopeful and optimistic feeling of the music within the scenes. Cassie and Ryan do have an awkward moment at the end of a date but the first clear indication from the mise-en-scene that there are problems ahead is at the Children’s hospital where Ryan works as a pediatrician. The scene opens on a large printed landscape of forest, hills, lakes, mountains and a stagecoach.

A floating red balloon bobs against the ceiling, its red ribbon dangling. The next cut is to Cassie, low in the frame, considering the balloon with a statue of the virgin Mary frame left, clocked to look slightly away from her. Upper frame left is a poster of skeletal joints, with flesh removed as it will later be by her cremation, and In the upper right, held out of focus is a step-by-step CPR instruction poster.

We don’t know it yet but the diagrammatic CPR figure on the wall is arranged as Cassie and Al will be in the much later murder scene, the location depicted on the wall matches the environment of Cassie’s demise and the aerial cremation shot. Ryan approaches Cassie putting her into shadow, as he will do when he eventually sends her to the cabin in those hills and the bright red balloon demands attention in the frame. It is perhaps too much to claim the balloon resembles a location pin, but we can certainly say it is dominant and that dominant red has only been previously used to suggest extreme danger in the opening club scene.

There has been no symmetry since we saw Cassie spring her trap on Jez in minute 7 and hardly any camera movement at all beyond pans and tilts. The return and evolution of how the camera track is used begins in the subsequent scene and Cassie is the first victim of it. In the coffee shop Ryan ‘innocently’ recalls some old college friends who Cassie feigns to not remember. The camera begins a continual track towards Cassie as soon as college is mentioned, but we are allowed to escape via intercuts to Ryan, who’s camera remains notably static. Indeed throughout the entire film, the camera never tracks into Ryan if he is alone in frame, even when he is ‘caught out’ in a damning video by Cassie later, it is she who receives the attention of the tracking shot. Exactly when the name of Al Monroe is mentioned, ominous music plays and the angle of the track changes, reframing Cassie far right. The left is ultimately filled with verticals of shadowy curtain folds and Cassie is in full close up against the frame with no escape, backlit blue by the neon sign in the coffee shop. When discussing Al Monroe we do not cut away from Cassie or her reaction. All of Ryan’s dialogue is delivered off screen. In these two adjacent sequences, of course only readable after first viewing the entire film, we have been informed of the journey Cassie is about to go on, the danger she will face and where she will face it. We cannot say yet though what final fate has been arranged for her by the filmmakers.

Cassies’ next three targets relate to those associated indirectly with the rape of Nina. Madison Mcphee, a friend at the time, Dean Walker, who ignored reports of the incident on her campus, and Jordan Green, the lawyer who’s firm intimidated Nina into dropping the case against Al Munroe. Madison is the first to be ‘challenged’. As we cut between them during the conversation, the tracking shot technique is used on both Cassie and Madison when the subject of Nina comes to the fore. Having tricked Madison into getting drunk, Cassie appears to have all the power, yet the camera tracks towards Cassie too, at the same pace, with matching shot length and duration as the approach to Madison. If tracking shots are being used to suggest to us who the victim is in a scene, then can we accept that Cassie is a victim too? The narrative situation certainly suggests that she is trapped by her friend’s rape and (again, heavily implied, never expressly stated) suicide. Almost all of Cassie’s actions relate to this wound. Cassie’s father states how he has “missed her, since Nina”’ and we regularly see Cassie reflecting over childhood pictures of Nina and herself together. It could equally be suggested that the matching camera movement helps keep us in the narrative, but in the preceding scene Ryan was arranged in a static medium close up while we moved ever closer to Cassie.

The next target for Cassie is Dean Walker and the confrontation takes place in the Dean’s office. Cassie makes her point this time by conducting a ‘faux kidnap’ of the Dean’s daughter, convincingly (convincing to the Dean, less so to us as we know Cassie better by now) pretending to have placed her in a similar scenario to the one Nina endured years ago. As Cassie convinces the Dean that she has purposefully put her daughter in harm’s way, the camera does again close in, on both of them. It is much less pronounced, perhaps as the office space is smaller but is again equally paced between Cassie and ‘her victim’. Time is given for reaction shots as as well as delivery of dialogue in the editing. Once the ‘kidnap’ is revealed to be a fiction, the camera returns to using pan and tilt only. Notably, Cassie is framed much wider than Dean Walker at the end of the sequence of shots. She is more easily released from the tension than the Dean at the end of the confrontation.

Symmetry also returns immediately after the coffee shop scene where Ryan brought Al Munroe into play.  The fledgling angel motif hinted at in the sequence on Jez’s fairy light dressed bed is presented now without ambiguity when we cut straight from the coffee shop to Cassie’s house. Full width of the frame, the window and curtains, backlit by moonlight give form to the silhouette of the ornate headboard forming a small, perhaps folded, pair of wings. Front fill lighting pulses on and off, in and out of darkness, as Cassie is revealed between the wings, hunched on the bed. The light source for the pulsing is shown to be Cassie’s laptop looping through photographs of herself and Nina as Children. We cannot definitively offer a single symbolism for the wings. There are reflective moments in the narrative that imply the presence of Nina but also production design decisions that suggest varying levels of ‘avenging power’ held by the owner in frame (soon, it is not just Cassie who will ‘have wings’). Somber music plays, we cut to a profile wide that shows the whole bedroom and back to the medium close up as Cassie leans forward to take action.

The third of Cassie’s targets is the lawyer Jordan Green. Cassie obtains his home address from his office and knocks on his door, but rather than being in denial, he is in full admission of his own ‘guilty’ role. This being the narrative case, we can look at how the treatment evolves and why this scenario is treated differently to Cassie’s other two recent encounters. Perched  above the confrontation between Cassie and the lawyer, this house is rich with art and designer furniture. Multiple Wassily, Barcelona and Gerrit Rietveld red and blue chairs and the many sleek vases are empty (apart from those used to frame Cassie – which hold only dead flowers.) The scene is established with a wide that places us just off centre. There is a symmetry available in the room but we are denied it in the beginning of the scene. When symmetry is granted, Both Jordan and Cassie are looked down on. Jordan is ‘given wings’, the only person other than Cassie to have them so far. We know that symmetry and ‘wings’ were first definitively established in conjunction with decisions that align with avenging Nina. This suggests that either somehow Jordan is ‘part of this’, that he has become ‘good’ or that Nina’s spirit is present in both of them in this moment. Cassie will forgive Jordan at the end of the scene and he will ultimately play a part in Cassie’s final revenge plan, which still makes all three of the options stated still possible. Cassie however is held just off symmetrical. She is unsettled, but only slightly by Jordan’s contrition. Dead flowers behind her perhaps signify the end of something. And after this point, further persuaded by conversation with Nina’s mother, Cassie abandons her quest in order to pursue her relationship with Ryan.

We see Cassie decide to give up as she sits on her ‘winged’ bed again, this time in daylight, the whole frame soft and evenly lit as she deletes her ‘Frender’ account and bins her tally notebook containing the names and tally of the men she has been hunting. The wings remain absent through the saccharine love affair development with Ryan but return when Madison reappears bearing a phone with a video of Nina’s rape.

Cassie’s wings now are full span, constructed by a cream and gold baroque style sofa. Madison is almost given ‘sofa wings’ too, but it’s awkward and never achieves the symmetry of Cassie or Jordan. Madison leaves the Blackberry offering on a stone table coffee table, exits the scene and demands never to be contacted again. The final part of the scene is for Cassie to endure watching the recording on the old phone.

We track in tentatively through the pink, cream and gold living room for 25 seconds before cutting to Cassie’s distraught face in close up for a few beats. Exactly as she hits play, we start to track away from Cassie. This track lasts 50 seconds as we hear the video recording and Ryan’s distinctive voice revealed, placing her own locker at the scene of the crime. We are not told why the tracking shot pulls away, but it is notable that we tracked in initially. This backwards track is the only one in the film and it is certainly the most traumatic moment for Cassie so far. The absence of a tracking shot is now distinctly noticeable in the subsequent scene where we may quite reasonably expect Cassie to punish Ryan for his bystander role in the rape video. Cassie though is in full control as she lets herself into his office at the hospital. She confronts and blackmails him but it is all visually conveyed via cuts, pans and tilts. Ryan will now definitely not be a target of Cassie or perhaps anyone else.

We have now accumulated all the language we need to read the climatic sequence of the film and are able to anticipate certain outcomes ahead of time and be certain of Cassie’s fate. Upon arrival to the woods, similar to the location shown on the wall in the hospital, we track towards Cassie’s car. A distorted version of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ screeches dominantly over her hesitant but determined walk along the only road to the cabin where the last remaining perpetrator is having his stag party. Cassie knocks on the door in symmetry but with her back to us and no wings to support her. The stags are all poisoned downstairs with gratuitous shots of mouths, lips, eyes, chests, crotches and fingers in the rubber mouth hole of a blow up doll.

The final supposed victim, Al Munroe, is separated, led upstairs, persuaded to bed and handcuffed to the frame, white crucifix pillows behind him. Looking at the room, the anamorphic distortion, present to varying degrees in all previous  interiors, is particularly pronounced by the horizontals of the log cabin walls. The number of cowboy hats that hang on the walls with the trophy head of the deer is equal to the number of party-stags. The bed, bedside lamps and framed ‘Yee Haw’ needlework, draw the crucifix on which Al is chained. But even as Cassie delivers her verbal summation with a reflective score playing under her monologue, even though he is panicking and squirming, we do not yet track into Al Munroe. Cassie’s endgame in this  moment is to scalpel Nina’s name onto Al’s body, but he is able to break free, pin her down and with the drop to silence in the score, begin her suffocation, silencing the whole film. Cassie struggles and there is only a tiny glimmer of hope left for her. But as soon as we cut to a wide tracking shot, we know it is over for Cassie.

This track is different, less smooth, more likely a gimbal than a track and dolly, and at two minutes, it is by far the longest take in the film. Cassie cannot escape now and the film maker does not want us to escape either. She will not break the spell as she did in the first scene, she is gone. But the move in is not just on Cassandra, Al is also present in the frame and so we know that even though in the morning, Cassie’s lifeless arm is positioned exactly as it was on the first red crucifix in the bar, Emerald Fennell will ultimately serve some justice upon Al Munroe. And that promise will be kept with his arrest in the very final scene.

Paul Burke. @poburke March 2022.