Why grief and trauma are fundamental to female-revenge movies

Yasmin Omar
·12-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Focus Features
Photo credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

From Town & Country

This article contains spoilers for ‘Promising Young Woman’.

Revenge stems from a cynicism in the systems designed to protect us, a fundamental mistrust of their effectiveness. Vengeful women operate outside the rule of the law, moulding their emotions – rage, grief, distress – into meticulously constructed plans, which they then execute with chilly precision. The film-makers Emerald Fennell and Quentin Tarantino recognise that female characters who take matters into their own hands this way are not only subverting traditional thriller tropes (that expect feminine docility in the face of wrongdoing), but also battling with their own inner demons.

At face value, Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) do not have much in common. One is an ultra-feminine post-Me Too thriller that holds a mirror up to societal rape culture, the other a Nazi-scalping ahistorical retelling of the end of World War II (produced by the convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein, no less). Dig deeper and the films’ parallels reveal themselves. Split into five clearly demarcated chapters, both are female-driven revenge stories that take the serious issues of sexual assault and Third Reich fascism, and package them into thoroughly entertaining movies that forever skirt the boundary between high drama and pitch-black comedy.

The motivating factor for each film’s protagonist is vengeance, a seed that was sown during a scarring bereavement in young adulthood. Promising Young Woman’s Cassie (Carey Mulligan) seeks to punish the man who raped her best friend Nina in college and precipitated her suicide (while also teaching local sexual predators the errors of their ways). Similarly, Inglourious Basterd’s Shoshanna (Mélaine Laurent) schemes to torch a cinema full of SS leaders as payback for their brutal massacre of her Jewish family when she was a teenager. By carefully plotting their characters’ battles with grief and trauma, the writer-directors successfully ground their shocking, revenge-fuelled climaxes in credible human emotion.

Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace
Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace

For a film with such scathing social critique at its core, Promising Young Woman is visually inviting, wrapped in vivid colours that draw you in and obscure its blackened centre. Cassie’s costumes are a cornerstone of the movie’s vibrant aesthetics. In her downtime – i.e. when not prowling nightclubs to trick men into showing their abusive impulses – she is invariably clothed in florals, ginghams and pastels (baby pink, powder blue, soft lilac, mint green), with a bright ribbon in her (often plaited) hair and different bubblegum nail-polish tones on every finger. Crucially, she always wears a gold friendship necklace bearing Nina’s name on a broken heart, both a symbol of devotion and devastation. One scene shows Cassie dressed in a white T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow, underneath which a child sits hugging a spotted deer.

These cutesy outfits and accessories are not entirely age-appropriate for the 30-year-old Cassie and serve to underline that she has been living in a state of arrested development following her friend’s death. The character’s particular affection for mint green is telling, since we are later shown Nina’s house, which is painted in the exact same hue. In some unconscious way, wearing the colour (and indeed the friendship necklace) allows Cassie to be close to her deceased companion.

Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features
Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features

Another indicator of her stunted growth is the decor in her living space. Cassie still resides at her parents’ house, sleeping in the childhood bedroom she has always slept in, so as to recapture her lost innocence and delay adulthood. Like her wardrobe, her room is not reflective of her current life stage. Replete with stuffed animals and many shades of pink, it also conveys the sense that Cassie is frozen in time, which is again communicated when, to her mother’s horror, she forgets her own birthday. Cassie mourns her friend by burrowing into the past, gazing at photographs of them playing happily together as kids, showing up on her bereaved mother’s doorstep and sharing memories of her in order to keep Nina alive.

The only way Inglourious Basterds could be described as childlike, by contrast, is in its narrative structure. The title of its first chapter, “Once upon a time.… in Nazi-occupied France”, evokes a fairy tale with its storybook phrasing, which, like Promising Young Woman, is deliberately misleading. This suspenseful 21-minute sequence is at odds with its reassuring title card because it details – with Tarantino’s signature violence – the slaying of Shoshanna’s entire family, machine-gun bullets raining down on them as they cower beneath the floorboards during a Nazi raid.

Where the two films do converge is in their leads’ interactions with men: Cassie and Shoshanna are wary of admirers, treating them with comparable aloofness and, at times, disdain. Both characters’ encounters with love interests occur when they are minding their own business at work. In Inglourious Basterds, Shoshanna is up a ladder removing the marquee lettering advertising a German movie night at her Parisian cinema, tossing the red capitals down onto the pavement with a carelessness that belies her disdain for the country’s antisemitic natives (directly juxtaposing with how she lovingly polishes the lettering of the French film-maker Henri-Georges Clouzot). The Nazi soldier Frederick (Daniel Brühl) interrupts her, shouting up to congratulate Shoshanna for programming his nation’s films – a bizarre flirting tactic when Franco-German political tensions are so fraught.

Shoshanna is blunt here, barely looking up from her work and replying curtly to his questions before stopping mid-task so that she can escape him. During this scene – spoken in French as is much of the movie – Shoshanna bids him farewell with the more permanent “adieu”, rather than the standard “au revoir”, explicitly stating that she does not want to see him ever again. The director frames the shot so that Frederick is below (on the street) and Shoshanna is above him (up the ladder), hinting that she has the moral high ground in this situation. In the pair’s subsequent interactions, she is always visibly annoyed by him, her expression unimpressed, her eyes clouded over in either disinterest or revulsion. To her, he is the same as the men who savagely murdered her family, sharing their uniform and beliefs of Aryan supremacy, and she is upfront about her disgust for him.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

Cassie is also trying to give her overeager suitor Ryan (Bo Burnham) the brush-off in Promising Young Woman. Like Shoshanna, her unwillingness to entertain her proffered romance is rooted in trauma: Nina was assaulted by men so Cassie keeps them at a distance as a means of self-preservation. When her former med-school classmate Ryan shows up at the café where she works, he insults her for dropping out of college and working as a barista. She, in turn, spits in his coffee. As if that wasn’t proof enough of her distaste for Ryan, she gives him a fake number, essentially cutting off any future contact. The men in Promising Young Woman and Inglourious Basterds are stand-ins for the films’ wider themes – Ryan representing toxic masculinity and Frederick Nazism – therefore Cassie and Shoshanna’s ultimate rejection of them demonstrates their zero-tolerance policy for misogyny and antisemitism respectively.

Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace
Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace

A further commonality between the films is the way their protagonists assume different identities. In Shoshanna’s case, she is forced to adopt a more French-sounding name to escape religious persecution, and opts for Emmanuelle Mimieux. Cassie, on the other hand, takes on other personas in order to appeal to and ensnare men. She tries on a separate alter-ego every night, switching up her appearance accordingly: she’ll sport business attire at a bar with corporate clientele, something more offbeat at a hipster club, a nurse’s outfit for a group of doctors etc.

The central characters in Promising Young Woman and Inglourious Basterds use their make-up as a sort of armour, and each movie features a pivotal moment where they are shown painting their faces. Watching an online beauty tutorial, Cassie takes a red lipstick and smudges it messily beyond her mouth to her outer cheek. She is purposefully trying to look dishevelled so a guy, thinking she is drunk, will take her home for non-consensual sex and get the shock of his life when she reveals she is sober. Although Cassie appears in control, the scene paradoxically emphasises her fear of being seen for who she is: by putting on the guises of vulnerability she lets slip her wish to conceal her own.

Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace
Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace

The Inglourious Basterds equivalent is an extended sequence that opens the fifth chapter of the film “Revenge of the giant face”. (Diverging from the style of the first four title cards, this one fades into the following shot so the word “revenge” is overlaid directly onto Shoshanna, who will soon achieve her long-awaited vengeance.) Extreme close-ups hone in on her filling in her eyebrows, pencilling on eyeliner, smoothing on mascara and painting her lips blood-red. David Bowie’s ‘Cat People’ blares on the soundtrack while Shoshanna sweeps the lipstick across her cheekbones like a soldier with camouflage, an action that literalises the idea of putting on war paint. Her face is determined, her resolve calcified as she prepares to enter the battleground that is her Nazi-filled cinema.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

Where she previously wore an unremarkable assortment of beige, brown and earth tones that helped her blend into a crowd and avoid any unwanted attention from the SS, now she sports a slinky red dress. She is playing the part of the hostess to execute her plan. It is important to note that in her homemade film – which she schedules to run as she burns her theatre down – Shoshanna is completely barefaced. She has nothing to hide any more. “My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus and this is the face of Jewish vengeance!” she exclaims amid the flames and the smoke engulfing the auditorium. She has discarded her alias; she wants the barricaded Nazis to see and hear the real her in their final moments. Given their unquestioning belief in their own racial superiority, they will be even more horrified that it was a Jewish woman who assured their demise.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

As Cassie and Shoshanna, Carey Mulligan and Mélanie Laurent largely underplay their emotions. Both of their performances are guarded, flinty and reliant on sardonic quips as a coping mechanism. The characters have been irreparably damaged by loss and, as such, do everything in their power to keep people at arm’s length and avoid additional suffering. That said, each film has a crucial scene in which its protagonist finally lets her guard down and succumbs to the feelings she has been working so hard to suppress. For Cassie, this is when she watches the video footage of Nina’s assault. Fennell trains the camera tightly on Mulligan’s face, capturing her every reaction. Her face crumples and her mouth falls open in horror; the tears flow, she winces, her forehead creases. She tries to prise her eyes away from the horrendous images but she cannot.

The film-maker slowly zooms out but never cuts away, keeping us suspended in this unbearable moment with Cassie, watching the agony wash through her. The audience never sees the video, but we can hear men (including Ryan) laughing at the attack, which dovetails with Hitler and Goebbels’ full-throated cackles at the senseless killing depicted in Frederick’s propaganda movie in Inglourious Basterds. When, mercifully, we transition to the next scene in Promising Young Woman, a tinkling lullaby is playing. As before, this infantile music signals Cassie’s desire to escape to a simpler time – it is an avoidance tactic to distance herself from her current pain.

Tarantino only lets us see Shoshanna’s hardened façade crack for about 10 seconds. After being frogmarched to lunch by Nazi officers, she is ambushed by Goebbels and Frederick who strategise about hosting their film premiere at her cinema. Shoshanna is understandably anxious throughout this exchange – her eyes are skittish, her smiles stiff and handshakes limp. But it is the arrival of Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man who sanctioned the murder of her family, that pushes her over the edge. An insistent, ominous drum beat starts up on the score and we flashback to an adolescent Shoshanna, drenched in her relatives’ blood, fleeing the massacre.

Back in the present, she inhales deeply and tears spring to her eyes. When she addresses the colonel, she can only eke out a whisper and must repeat herself; she is reticent to share information that might blow her cover and has to be prompted several times to speak. He picks up on her nerves and clarifies there’s no need for her to worry. Once Hans finally leaves, she double-checks that he is out of earshot then drops her fake smile and begins hyperventilating, bringing a trembling hand to her mouth and furrowing her brows into a grimace. Throughout the film, she masks her grief, compartmentalising it so she can function on day-to-day tasks and keep herself safe from discovery by the Nazis, which makes this outpouring of feeling all the more powerful.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

By the end of Promising Young Woman and Inglourious Basterds, these broken characters achieve their sought-after revenge, albeit at the cost of their own lives. Cassie sacrifices herself to avenge Nina, goading her friend’s rapist until he suffocates her, then framing him for her murder. Shoshanna planned to come out unscathed from her plot, but gets shot by Frederick in her projection-room. These women channel all of their hurt and suffering into their actions, and pay the price for them.

Each film includes messages from beyond the grave: Cassie sends Ryan a self-timed series of winky-face texts signed from her and Nina, gloating over their victory; while Shoshanna laughs maniacally in her pre-recorded film for the Nazis, at last unfettering her pent-up delight to say “I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who’s going to [kill you]”. Be they bottled up or spilling forth, emotions are at the heart of these two movies – love tussles with hate, joy with sorrow, passion with indifference. Forgiveness of abusers, however, is off the table. Cassie and Shoshanna meet their end by fire: a fitting conclusion, perhaps, for characters who have transformed their trauma into a burning desire for justice.

‘Promising Young Woman’ is coming soon to cinemas.