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'Promising Young Woman' And 'Pieces Of A Woman' Examine Trauma And Revenge

Jan 13, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 12:33 pm

If you didn't know what they were about, you'd be forgiven for confusing the striking new movies Promising Young Woman and Pieces of a Woman. They do have similarities that go beyond their titles: Each is an intense but uneven film about the lingering effects of trauma and tragedy. And each one centers on an American woman played by an English actor doing her strongest work in some time.

In the devious revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, the actor is Carey Mulligan, and we first see her character, Cassie, nearly passed out drunk in a nightclub. A nice-seeming young man offers to take her home, but instead brings her back to his place. Just as he starts to undress her, Cassie suddenly snaps to attention, fully awake and fully sober. There's an ominous cut to black; we never find out what happens to the young man or the many others like him.

This is what Cassie does almost every night, offering herself up as bait and turning the tables on would-be rapists. In her mind, she's making the world a safer place for women, one predator at a time.

Her days are uneventful by comparison. At 30, she works in a coffee shop and still lives at home with her parents. Years ago, she was studying to be a doctor, but dropped out after something terrible happened to her best friend and classmate, Nina.

Promising Young Woman is the first feature written and directed by the English filmmaker Emerald Fennell, who served as showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve. She gives the movie a subversively candy-colored surface; watching it is like biting into a super-sweet cupcake with a surprisingly bitter aftertaste.

Initially it suggests a vigilante movie for the #MeToo era, as Cassie tries to settle the score with everyone, including the dean who turned a blind eye to Nina's pain. But then it turns into a disquietingly charming romantic comedy, as Cassie — who has trained herself to see every nice guy as a potential threat — unexpectedly falls for a nice guy, played by the comedian and filmmaker Bo Burnham.

These wild tonal shifts seem to echo Cassie's own identity crisis: the trusting innocent she used to be and the self-destructive avenger she's become. But as it barrels toward an ending that strives to be tragic, darkly funny and queasily nihilistic all at once, Promising Young Woman starts to feel at odds with itself, as if it were trying to make you cackle and weep at the same time. That it works at all is a credit to Mulligan's skillful, shape-shifting performance. She gives this audacious but not fully realized movie an emotional coherence it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Vanessa Kirby plays a woman whose baby dies after a home birth in Pieces of a Woman.
Benjamin Loeb / Netflix

Vanessa Kirby does something similar in Pieces of a Woman: She's ultimately more convincing than the movie itself. In this grim English-language drama from the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and the screenwriter Kata Wéber, Kirby plays a Boston woman named Martha who's about to have a child with her partner, Sean, played by Shia LaBeouf.

The two have planned on a home birth, which takes place in a brilliantly choreographed and excruciatingly tense sequence that plays out in real time for almost 25 minutes. I've never seen anything quite like this scene, in which Martha endures contraction after contraction, retching and groaning in pain while Sean and the midwife, played by a terrific Molly Parker, rush about trying to help. But their efforts end in tragedy, and the baby doesn't survive.

The story unfolds over the next eight months. Martha's mother, played by an astonishing Ellen Burstyn, demands justice, urging them to sue the midwife. While Martha retreats into herself, Sean descends noisily into grief and rage. At one point, he becomes frighteningly aggressive in a hard-to-watch sex scene that couldn't help but remind me that LaBeouf's former girlfriend recently brought abuse allegations against him. It's not the first time the actor has given a performance that seems to spring, in part, from his own personal demons.

Pieces of a Woman doesn't entirely work; it has its share of falsely contrived moments and heavy-handed symbolism. But Kirby's quiet, implosive performance is breathtaking in its subtlety. You can see in Martha a quality that also defined Kirby's young Princess Margaret on The Crown: a steely refusal to conform to others' expectations. Martha recoils when loved ones try to comfort her, and she's reluctant to pursue the lawsuit; her grief exists beyond the reach of compensation or consolation. You don't always know what she's thinking from moment to moment, but you believe her completely.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang has reviews of two new movies you can watch at home. The thriller "Promising Young Woman," starring Carey Mulligan, can be found on various on-demand platforms. And the drama "Pieces Of A Woman," starring Vanessa Kirby, is on Netflix. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: If you didn't know what they were about, you'd be forgiven for confusing the striking new movies "Promising Young Woman" and "Pieces Of A Woman." They do have similarities that go beyond their titles. Each is an intense but uneven film about the lingering effects of trauma and tragedy. And each one centers on an American woman played by an English actor doing her strongest work in some time.

In the devious revenge thriller "Promising Young Woman," the actor is Carey Mulligan. And we first see her character, Cassie, nearly passed out drunk in a nightclub. A nice-seeming young man offers to take her home, but instead brings her back to his place. Just as he starts to undress her, Cassie suddenly snaps to attention, fully awake and fully sober. There's an ominous cut to black. We never find out what happens to the young man or the many others like him.

This is what Cassie does almost every night, offering herself up as bait and turning the tables on would-be rapists. In her mind, she's making the world a safer place for women, one predator at a time.

Her days are uneventful by comparison. At 30, she works in a coffee shop and still lives at home with her parents. Years ago, she was studying to be a doctor, but dropped out after something terrible happened to her best friend and classmate, Nina.

In one scene, she meets with the dean of her old medical school and revisits those awful events.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

CONNIE BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Daisy (ph).

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) That's me.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Dean Walker. Please sit.

My assistant says that you are interested in resuming med school.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) school.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) That's right.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) May I ask what prompted your desire to get back to your studies?

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) I guess I couldn't stop thinking about my time here.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Yeah, it's an extraordinary place. It's an unusual request.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Yes, but I left under unusual circumstances.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Oh.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) I left because of what happened to Nina.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Hmm.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Nina Fisher - you don't remember her? Maybe you remember Alexander Monroe?

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Oh, yes - Alexander Monroe. He actually just came back and gave a talk here. Oh, he's a really nice guy - really smart. Are you a friend of his?

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) No. So you don't remember the accusations made against Al Monroe?

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) I don't.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) He took a girl - Nina Fisher, the one you don't remember - back to his room where he had sex with her repeatedly and in front of his friends while she was too drunk to have any idea what was going on. She was covered in bruises the next day - handprints, I guess you could say.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Was it reported?

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Yes.

BRITTON: (As Dean Walker) Do you know who Nina spoke to?

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) You.

CHANG: "Promising Young Woman" is the first feature written and directed by the English filmmaker Emerald Fennell, who served as showrunner on the second season of "Killing Eve." She gives the movie a subversively candy-colored surface. Watching it is like biting into a super sweet cupcake with a surprisingly bitter aftertaste.

Initially, it suggests a vigilante movie for the #MeToo era, as Cassie tries to settle the score with everyone - like that Dean - who turned a blind eye to Nina's pain. But then it turns into a disquietingly charming romantic comedy as Cassie, who has trained herself to see every nice guy as a potential threat, unexpectedly falls for a nice guy, played by the comedian and filmmaker Bo Burnham. These wild tonal shifts seem to echo Cassie's own identity crisis - the trusting innocent she used to be and the self-destructive avenger she's become.

But as it barrels toward an ending that strives to be tragic, darkly funny and queasily nihilistic all at once, "Promising Young Woman" starts to feel at odds with itself; as if it were trying to make you cackle and weep at the same time. That it works at all is a credit to Mulligan's skillful shapeshifting performance. She gives this audacious but not fully realized movie an emotional coherence it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Vanessa Kirby does something similar in "Pieces Of A Woman." She's ultimately more convincing than the movie itself. In this grim English-language drama from the Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and the screenwriter Kata Weber, Kirby plays a Boston woman named Martha, who's about to have a child with her partner Sean, played by Shia LeBeouf. The two have planned on a home birth, which takes place in a brilliantly choreographed and excruciatingly tense sequence that plays out in real time for almost 25 minutes. I've never seen anything quite like this scene, in which Martha endures contraction after contraction, retching and groaning in pain while Sean and the midwife - played by a terrific Molly Parker - rush about trying to help. But their efforts end in tragedy, and the baby doesn't survive.

The story unfolds over the next eight months. Martha's mother - played by an astonishing Ellen Burstyn - demands justice, urging them to sue the midwife. While Martha retreats into herself, Sean descends noisily into grief and rage. At one point, he becomes frighteningly aggressive in a hard-to-watch sex scene that couldn't help but remind me of the recent abuse allegations brought against LaBeouf by his former girlfriend. It's not the first time the actor has given a performance that seems to spring, in part, from his own personal demons.

"Pieces Of A Woman" doesn't entirely work. It has its share of falsely contrived moments and heavy-handed symbolism. But Kirby's quiet, implosive performance is breathtaking in its subtlety. You can see in Martha a quality that also defined Kirby's young Princess Margaret on "The Crown"; a steely refusal to conform to others' expectations. Martha recoils when loved ones try to comfort her, and she's reluctant to pursue the lawsuit. Her grief exists beyond the reach of compensation or consolation. You don't always know what she's thinking from moment to moment, but you believe her completely.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the L.A. Times. He reviewed the new films "Promising Young Woman" and "Pieces Of A Woman."

On tomorrow's show, we speak with director Paul Greengrass. His new film, "News Of The World," starring Tom Hanks, is a Western set in poor, small Texas towns and settlements shortly after the Civil War. It's a time of racism, division, anger and epidemics. Greengrass' other films include three Jason Bourne movies, "United Flight (ph) 93" and "Captain Phillips," which also starred Hanks. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.