Off With Her Head: Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023)

Do women -- or women's movies -- always have to be nice?

Off With Her Head: Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023)
It's almost as if this image is calculated to inspire some sort of primal reaction.

I might be sailing through life right now, blissfully unafflicted with an opinion on Saltburn, were it not for the way that the Internet talks about women. 

The woman in question is Emerald Fennell, writer and director of Saltburn, and (previous to that) also writer and director of Promising Young Woman, a bleak, stylish rape-revenge thriller that famously botched its ending. Saltburn also botches its ending, possibly even worse than Promising Young Woman did, but before we get there, the Discourse awaits. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman — and look away now if you don’t want to know the “twist,” though it’s been discussed all over the Internet — was that it does not actually contain much rape-revenge. The protagonist, Cassie, spends the entire movie hunting down the men who raped her best friend, playing some fairly brutal psychological games with their enablers along the way, but when she finds the actual culprits, they get the upper hand and murder her. We are denied the catharsis of watching Carey Mulligan hack up rapists, and forced to remember that rape culture, misogyny and male violence usually win the day — most women don’t go after their rapists, or their friends’ rapists, precisely because there is no realistic way for them to end up on the winning side of that encounter. 

If that were all, I would still like Promising Young Woman: It’s relentlessly misanthropic and pessimistic, in a way that justifies a downer ending, and the controversial choice to substitute physical violence with emotional and mental torture (some of the games Cassie plays with the rape-enablers, particularly the women, are crueler and harder to watch than any murder scene I can remember) actually worked for me. There are worse ways to hurt someone than just swinging an axe at them, and in a movie where the violence is primarily verbal, we’re forced to reckon with the fact that words — like the ones relentlessly shoveled on top of rape victims to discredit them — can do more harm than blows. 

So I can defend Promising Young Woman, and I have, but even I can admit that it falls apart at the end. In a tacked-on final scene, which was not part of the original script, it turns out that Cassie somehow planned for her own murder and alerted the cops in advance, thereby making the police the agents of revenge and the real heroes of the movie’s final scene. In the age of ACAB, this last choice did not go over well, to say the least, and quite a few critics — in particular, feminists of color — felt that Promising Young Woman represented everything wrong with white feminism. 

The ending might, but I don’t think the movie does — though, realistically, I don't think I get a vote. My point is this: The conversation about PYW was held in good faith, often by critics I admire. But, on the outskirts of that conversation were a whole lot of people who only heard “Emerald Fennell” and “problem with feminism,” and when the Internet gets word that it’s allowed to dunk on a woman — especially a feminist woman — that can only ever end one way. 

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