Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), last night’s high heels in hand, walks past a construction site, her makeup smudged and sauce from a perhaps ill-advised street vendor hot dog dripping down her bare leg.
“We’re definitely meant to see that splash and think, holy shit, that’s blood!” says Promising Young Woman set decorator Rae Deslich.
As she finishes the last few bites of that morning’s breakfast, she stares down the construction workers who catcall her from across the street and they back off like wounded dogs.
“A lot of people look at a woman eating a hotdog and be like, oh it’s phallic, it’s sexy,” like the construction workers, Deslich says. “She’s metaphorically destroying that hotdog.”
Which is a perfect exclamation point on what she’s done in the opening scene prior, which debut director Emerald Fennell pitched and sold Promising Young Woman based on.
It sees Nice Guy™ Jerry (Adam Brody) offer to make sure the seemingly inebriated Cassie gets home safe, before suggesting they make a detour to his apartment, where his roommate is conveniently out of town and he plies her with kumquat liqueur. If you’ve heard anything about Promising Young Woman since it was released late last year, you can probably guess what happens next.
“She destroyed that dude and she’s also destroying this phallic piece of food,” Deslich says. “She was probably too far down the hotdog for it to be recognisable but you still see her very savagely eating something and that was something that we wanted to keep in there” as a signifier that something is lurking beneath the “delicate little female character” of Cassie, as Deslich describes her.
These first two scenes feature food and drink in a prominent way, as does probably 75% percent of the rest of the film. From the food-centric meet cute—she spits in his coffee—and dates with her new beau Ryan (Bo Burnham) to the phallic objects, such as straws and Twizzlers, that Cassie uses to draw attention to her mouth, as another brightly coloured and underestimated movie character would say, to the candy coloured palette of the overall film, food is central to Promising Young Woman.
While plenty of films and TV shows depict food in some way, it is rare to see female characters eating with such frequency as Cassie. The scene—only a few seconds long and part of a montage—in which her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), Ryan and Cassie hang out while eating pizza when they just as easily could have been depicted laughing and bonding sans food is an example of this. As is Cassie munching on chips at Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s apartment, which goes back to Deslich’s assertion that Cassie eating in the presence of the men she takes down is a signifier of her obliteration of them. The look on Mintz-Plasse’s face (and Brody’s earlier in the movie) when he realises Cassie’s not drunk and he’s been caught in the act is indicative of this.
“It’s really funny that you mentioned that because I don’t think we ever set out to make ‘a food movie’ where food is a character,” says Deslich, however they also wanted to make a film that didn’t shy away from having its heroine eating and the rituals that surround it. Cassie and Ryan’s first date is at a hamburger joint because of its all-American vibe, while when she introduces him to her parents, they sit down to a very basic meal of spaghetti. Deslich says this is because they wanted audiences to feel that sexual assault and its traumatic aftermath could happen to anyone.
Meals also served a practical storytelling function. “When Cassie and Madison go for lunch, that needed to be a really long appointment for them for Cassie’s plan to work, so of course they’re going to have lunch,” Deslich says.
Plenty of reviews have noted the “a candy coated lozenge” theme, as Deslich puts it, of Promising Young Woman.
“I think it’s a confluence of a few different things,” they say. “The colours and the frivolity of cupcakes and pastries inspired the main look of the movie which is Cassie’s colour palate…
“Cupcakes and candy are considered unserious foods, that was our visual inspiration, not necessarily thematic,” Deslich continues. “We really wanted bright, pastel colours in the coffee shop because that’s where Cassie feels comfortable and spends most of her waking moments. She’s either at home or at a bar or at the coffee shop. The pastries were supportive of the colour scheme…
“We wanted to challenge the notion that these colours and textures aren’t serious,” Deslich says. “All of the encoding for colours is cultural itself. There’s nothing inherent in pink that makes it an unserious colour. Why shouldn’t a revenge thriller be pink and blue?”
Fennell has reiterated this point in many interviews. “I usually have incredibly silly, elaborate nail polish myself and I just notice that people in meetings clock it and think, oh, she’s a fucking idiot […] It’s like, oh well, you wouldn’t expect these hands to scratch your eyes out then, and that’s useful to know,” she told Jezebel.
Deslich said something similar to me in our conversation, so it was clearly the ethos of Promising Young Woman, or at least the party line.
“On a very surface level it’s considered feminine to chew on something absentmindedly. It really worked to have Cassie chew on Twizzlers or a straw or a pen because it’s coded as very ditzy but we know that she’s incredibly smart…” they said, again calling back to Clueless. “If you’re behaving in this way you must be an idiot but we know that that can be true because we see this mastermind.”
The focus on the mouth, both throughout the film and in the marketing for it, could be seen to be amplifying Cassie speaking out about the sexual assault of her best friend, Nina, however misguided her actions are. It underscores the penultimate act of Promising Young Woman. “It has to do with taking all the air out of the conversation,” says Deslich, which gives a whole new meaning to the bubblegum Cassie blows in her nurse stripper outfit she dons in an attempt to enact revenge on Nina’s rapist. In our sprawling conversation, which continued long after we stopped talking about the film in question, Deslich agreed that Promising Young Woman is probably in conversation with other hyper-coloured, hyper-feminine movies, such as Jawbreaker, which involves a similar scene.
“People think of the female mouth as being this source of pleasure, that the mouth is only sexual,” Deslich says, which Cassie absolutely plays into and results in her being able to infiltrate the bachelor party where she is to avenge Nina. “She’s chewing and consuming things and the other characters are choosing to overlook what that means… But she’s literally destroying things with her teeth and showing her fierceness and the other characters are just intentionally, blithely ignoring it because they’re so caught up in their bias of how women are supposed to behave so they’re just overlooking the danger that she poses to their own peril.”
The vigour and frequency with which Cassie consumes throughout Promising Young Woman “is] actually very threatening as well,” Deslich says. “When you put something inside of you, you’re obliterating it.” Just like Cassie ultimately (though to contentious success) obliterates those who wronged her.
Elsewhere: [Bustle] RIP, The Nice Guy.