I have high hopes of this comedy-horror, where the feminist sub-text is right there on the surface. It promises to be a ‘fresh’ take on a well-worn trope, written and directed by two women (Lauryn Kahn and Mimi Cave respectively). So imagine my disappointment when I find myself watching an all-too familiar extended sequence: a beautiful young woman chained up in a cruel madman’s basement, crying and begging for her freedom. Surely I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s not enough to subvert the ending (spoiler: it’s not a man who saves the day)? That, actually, you can’t make a valid point about the exploitation of women by exploiting them further? Or that a film that lingers unironically on images of women’s suffering loses its claim to be a fucking comedy?
It starts off promisingly. Okay, so it’s not exactly subtle. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is single and sick of the dating scene. We see her out with a cartoonish man, all wafting scarf and pronouncements about how women just aren’t as feminine as they used to be. It’s mildly amusing: recognisably awful, but also (whisper) a bit hack. Later, she texts another guy, who immediately sends her a dick pic. Maybe love just isn’t for her, she tells her best pal, Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs). But then she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan), who seems too good to be true. He’s sweet, polite, engaging, kind.
And yeah, too good to be true. Because Steve is a cannibal, who butchers women. It’s an obvious metaphor for the romance meat market – and, sadly, the film’s charm wears off as quickly as Steve’s. The lengthy pre-credit sequence hints at something gentle and quirky; what follows is almost gore-by-numbers, albeit with some gorgeous cinematography (by Pawel Pogorzelski) and a banging 80s soundtrack.
Ach, I don’t know. It makes me weary. I hated rape-revenge movies The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Elle for the same reason: I don’t want to watch women being victimised, and then emerging, brutalised, to re-enact the same violence against men. That’s not redemption; it’s having your steak and eating it: a tone-deaf definition of a ‘strong woman’ – and we shouldn’t let the film-makers off the hook. Emerald Fennell nails feminist vengeance in Promising Young Woman, proving it can be done.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good about this film. The actors are all impressive, although Gibbs is criminally under-used as Mollie (of course she is, because Mollie is black and gay, only ever destined for a sidekick role alongside the straight, white heroine). I like the device of setting up Paul (Dayo Okeniyi) as a potential hero, and then deflating that hope. Stan is well-cast as the killer, plausibly likeable, so that his success in charming Noa seems credible enough. The initial meat-packing sequences are wonderfully stylised, hinting at the better movie this could have been.
In many ways, the whole thing works better as an analogy for farming, where animals live in captivity, and where ‘kindness’ only extends as far as keeping them warm and fed so that they’re tender and disease-free when we come to eat them. That’s not the intended message, but it’s the one I’m taking home.
This movie just doesn’t work for me: the ‘comedy’ never raises more than a small smile, and the ‘horror’ is nasty rather than scary. Sadly, in the end, Fresh is more than a little bit stale.