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The black comedy of writer-director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman effortlessly shifts from comedy to thriller to rom-com to horror movie, often within a single scene, as the Focus Features release tells the tale of the clever Cassandra Thomas, played by Carey Mulligan, who was viewed as a promising young woman until mysterious circumstances prompted her to drop out of medical school.
“It was set up in the script. We knew how Emerald wanted to play with the different genres and set up those clear moments that are more horror movie, more thriller or rom-com. Her writing is very precise,” says film editor Frédéric Thoraval, who in working with Fennell for the first time took on the challenge of maintaining that delicate tonal balance. “The main thing was to follow the character of Cassie; she helps us to follow the changes of tone. [Once you] have the connection with the main character, you hopefully can accept when Emerald pulls the rug out [from under you], and Emerald is changing those emotions very fast.”
An example of the film’s roller-coaster tonal shifts is a scene that starts with Cassie sitting in a waiting room of her former university. The Roman numeral “II” appears over the image, signaling that this is the next step in her yet to be fully revealed plot. So when Cassie enters Dean Walker’s office for a meeting, “We know something will happen,” says Thoraval.
Cassie begins the meeting by saying she wishes to re-enroll in the medical program; the dean, played by Connie Britton, is seated behind her desk in control of the conversation. Then Cassie starts to talk about her college friend Nina and what happened to her one night when she was drunk while in a room with some male students. “It’s a turning point in the movie; suddenly, the audience is told what happened that night, that Nina was the victim years ago,” Thoraval says. “We are in a face-off now, on profile shots where you can see the dean physically backing off slowly. The balance of power starts to shift in Cassie’s favor.” As the conversation continues, the dean is losing control, trying to justify why she didn’t take action when the incident was reported, saying the boys should have “the benefit of the doubt.”
“In this moment,” the editor explains, “the audience perceives that scene is done. But in reality, this is the start of a new phase — a ‘reset’ of the action for the tension to slowly build again as Cassie plays with the dean, telling her what she supposedly has done to the dean’s daughter — visually, with the camera tracking in on Cassie, and sonically, with an ominous score starting and a sound effect creeping in underneath — until the climax where a panicked Dean Walker is shouting.”
The shouting continues, but a cut takes the viewer back outside the dean’s office, where another student is waiting for a meeting. “This awkward moment helps to deflate the tension and bring back some lightness,” Thoraval notes. When the scene then cuts back inside the office, Cassie’s “reaction when the dean is finally saying ‘you’re right’ is the most important, so we stay with Cassie on her close-up.”
This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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