Sight&Sound - 05.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1

12 | Sight&Sound | May 2020

By Rebecca Liu
From prestige television shows to arthouse
films, depictions of sexual violence have too
often been used as a cheap way of signalling
artistic seriousness – displays of suffering taking
the place of actual critique. There is a long-estab-
lished tradition of filmmaking that tries to enlist
the audience’s sympathy for female victims, and
at the same time lingers over their vulnerability
in order to titillate. As the critic Katherine Angel
has asked, how do we “explore women’s position
as targets of violence without indulging in this
kind of sexual doublethink; without, perhaps,
contributing to the problem at hand”?
Since the watershed moment of #MeToo, some
new films have emerged that seem to clear a
path out of this doublethink. In Coralie Fargeat’s
thriller Revenge (2018), a woman hunts down
her abusers in an unforgiving desert. Jay Roach’s
Bombshell (2019) tells the real-life story of former
Fox News anchors whose allegations of sexual
harassment brought down the network’s late
chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. This year sees
the arrival of Killing Eve showrunner Emerald
Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, in which a
disaffected 30-year-old takes down predators, and
Kitty Green’s The Assistant, which follows the life
of a graduate working for a film executive.
Though born out of the same cultural moment,
The Assistant and Promising Young Woman take
different approaches to their subject. Echoing the
darkly comic noir of Killing Eve, Promising Young
Woman is a lurid retribution story set to Britney
Spears and Wagner. The audience is invited to
join in the female protagonist’s anger, and find
cathartic pleasure in her vengeance. Meanwhile,
Julia, the reticent twentysomething assistant
in Green’s feature, occupies a claustrophobic
universe where violence lurks around the seams.
She cleans up her boss’s stained couch, finds
loose earrings in its folds, and sees women come

into his office at night. Everything circles around
a truth, but when she finally articulates it to a
human resources manager, she is threatened.
Other women in the office look away. There’s no
catharsis: just a morally bankrupt system.
There’s no one right way to address #MeToo on
film. The movement is both intimate and wide-
ranging, and every woman has her own feelings
about what is engaging, what is too painful to see.
There are elements to Promising Young Woman
and The Assistant that may elicit scepticism. To
what extent can pulpy rape-revenge narratives
deliver viewers from their pain, and at what point
are stylised quests for revenge not a response to
genuine hurt, but a form of voyeurism? Viewers
of The Assistant may feel overwhelmed by its
unrelenting stream of ordinary viciousness. Yes,
other women can be terrible; yes, HR departments
are not your friend. But why revisit something
that brings you so much pain in daily life?

But these criticisms have more to do with what
we want from these films than with what they
set out to do. The confusion is understandable,
given the way that any story about a woman
gets marketed as a feminist statement, so that it
necessarily suggests empowerment. But Promising
Young Woman does not purport to be a guide to
liberation; it tells the story of one woman dealing
with her demons. Likewise, The Assistant is not a
manual for workplace harmony, but a depiction
of life as it exists for women on the lower rungs of
the film industry.
The films’ premises, and the ways in which
they are explored, are not immune from critique.
But in the midst of a cultural moment that takes
in so many different stories of pain, we should ask
ourselves what we want our works of art to do,
and what they can’t. In the meantime, films like
Promising Young Woman and The Assistant do their
bit to swing a machete at the thickets of sexual
doublethink that have prevailed for too long,
finding new ways of telling stories. Bit by bit, we
may hack our way to a clearing where a woman’s
pain can be seen for what it is.
The Assistant is reviewed on page 62 and
Promising Young Woman on page 64. Their
releases have been delayed by the coronavirus



Can film and television, which
have so long thrived on using the
pain of women for entertainment,
find a way of treating it honestly?


Anger is an energy: Carey Mulligan as the vengeful protagonist of Promising Young Woman


“I feel like we’re all part of this system that has
kept women out of power for so long. If we want
to improve things moving forward, it’s not just
about getting rid of Harvey Weinstein. We need
to look at our workplaces and how we can make
them safer and more fair and equitable. [With
The Assistant] I wanted to look at the complexity
of it, as opposed to labelling people as simply
monsters and victims. People try to make sense of
these situations by saying who’s good and who’s
bad, and I was trying to point out that we’re all a
part of this system; we all have a duty to examine
what went wrong and why. I was also very much
interested in centring a woman in the narrative,
and making a film about her experience.

I spoke to a lot of people who’ve gone to
human resources, and who felt that they
were there to protect the company, not
the employees. And they also talked about
experiences of gaslighting. I was interested in
incorporating all of that into [the pivotal scene
between Julia Garner’s Julia and Matthew
Macfadyen’s HR manager Wilcock], but also
making sure [Wilcock] wasn’t irrational and
angry, but was quite clear and coherent in
what he was presenting. It’s about exposing
the machinery, the system that supports a
predator like this, and what kind of environment
allows that behaviour to continue.”
Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen: The Assistant Interview by Nikki Baughan

‘ Promising Young Woman’ does

not purport to be a guide to

liberation; it tells the story of one

woman dealing with her demons

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