Burning Down the House: On the Operatic Impulses of “Promising Young Woman”

Olivia Giovetti explores the operatic roots and resonances in the film “Promising Young Woman.”

By Olivia GiovettiApril 9, 2021

Burning Down the House: On the Operatic Impulses of “Promising Young Woman”

There’s lots of men raging around the place, too, but male rage has a different quality. It’s less self-destructive. Women’s rage turns inward most of the time. How wonderful to be able to burn down the whole world. Even if it is only a stage. Revenge.

— Marina Carr


I WAS BUSY thinking ’bout “Liebestod” — both as the climax of Tristan und Isolde and, as a more general concept, the “love-death.”

At the end of Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera, Isolde races from her marital bed with King Marke to the deathbed of his nephew, Tristan — her true love. In star-crossed fashion, Tristan dies just as Isolde arrives. Marke, having learned from Isolde’s maid that the couple had unwittingly ingested a love potion, arrives soon after. He had been ready to renounce Isolde and marry her to Tristan, but instead sees his beloved nephew dead.

“Why have you done this to me?” Marke asks Isolde, before bitterly concluding that “delusion has increased grief.”

But Isolde doesn’t dwell in grief. Can’t everyone else see, she sings, how softly and sweetly he smiles? How he shines ever more brightly, as if haloed by stars? “Or is it only me who hears this melody, wondrous and sweet, that sounds from within him?” She wants to drink in this melody from her lover’s corpse, to submerge herself under its waves. Her final lines are her epitaph before she dies of love: “To drown, to sink without even realizing it: the highest pleasure.” Or, as Paris Hilton might ask, If tomorrow, the world ends, why shouldn’t we be with the one we really love?

No wonder, then, that Emerald Fennell would use this aria, in all of its erotic and addictive glory, at a key moment in Promising Young Woman. Midway through a revenge spree, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) pauses too long at an intersection, the “Liebestod” barely audible at first, then gradually increasing in volume.

Over this, we hear a man behind Cassie, blaring his horn. The street is otherwise empty, and two-laned, so he eventually decides to pass her. But he can’t resist one last round of invective before he does, pulling up in an oversized pickup truck that dominates her unassuming sedan. Without flinching, Cassie gets out of her car, grabs a tire iron from the passenger-side window, and smashes the guy’s tail lights and windshield. He seems genuinely shaken, and when he calls her one more expletive-laden name, she calmly, even vaguely flirtatiously, responds, “Excuse me?”

Taken out of context, this could seem like an apology — a phrase every woman is used to saying countless times a day when she realizes that she’s in the way. But for Cassie, it’s a threat. The “Liebestod” climaxes not as the driver speeds off (this scene isn’t about him), but just after he’s out of sight, as the camera fixes on Cassie, now shaken by her actions. We’ve seen almost 60 minutes of her revenge spree by this scene, yet this is the first time she’s become physically destructive. In the background, a freight train glides across an overpass. Cassie’s gaze remains fixed on the direction where the truck had driven. Everything is moving forward, moving on, except her. She’s locked in the stasis of her own protracted love-death for her lost friend. This is the moment where we know that Promising Young Woman cannot end well for its heroine.

“It’s how the system works. The house always wins,” Emerald Fennell said of the ending to Promising Young Woman in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “For me, it would be an enormous injustice to be so honest the whole way through this movie and then have a Hollywood ending that also let [sic] us all off the hook.”

Perhaps, then, if Promising Young Woman cannot have a Hollywood ending, it can be afforded an operatic one. While the film’s ending has been discussed and dissected under the hushed tones of spoiler alerts preserving the hairpin curves of its final 25 minutes, the most ubiquitous salvos in the operatic canon are produced with the assumption that people know how things will end. When the most famous aria of your opera is known as the “Love-death,” there isn’t a whole lot of room for ambiguity. This dissonance between Promising Young Woman’s did-not-see-that-coming finale and the predictability (indeed, the necessity) of the suffering and sacrifice in Tristan und Isolde is as lucid and unapologetic as the rococo fever dream that is Cassie’s living room.

Fennell thrives in such dissonance, and beyond Tristan und Isolde, the catacombs of opera are littered with similar case studies of the futility of revenge and the inevitability of self-destruction … especially for women who happen to be both promising and young. In her unflinching book Opera: The Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément best describes it as a “great masculine scheme […] thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character.” Much like opera, Fennell’s directorial debut holds its soundtrack as sacrosanct. On the same Janus coin as the screenplay, the text of the film, the music serves as an emotional Rosetta Stone when faced with the stone-eyed stoicism of Cassie. More than that, it supports the irrational, spectacular undergirding of the story. To borrow from Brecht, “Opera’s unreasonable side comes from the fact that there are rational elements employed there […] the music makes the reality vague and unreal.”

Consider the opening, which begins with sound before sight: Charli XCX’s sugar-spun “Boys” features a packed sea of slow-motion gyrating male bodies, bathed in Instagram-ready pink and blue lights. On closer inspection, however, any pretense of glamour is gone in an instant when the music fades into the background, and we realize we’re at an average bar on an average weeknight with an average crowd of average men — pit stains, beer bellies, tragic choreography. Without the music, we’re left with the cheap sexiness of reality.

Enter, then, Cassie, all smudged sentences and slurred makeup. Our prima donna is viewed from across the room by three young bros. Eventually, one of them (Adam Brody) offers to give Cassie a ride home, but, on the way, “convinces” her to come to his place instead. He pours her another drink, and then, when she asks to lay down, joins her, moving his tongue over her impassive face like a Mars rover. That’s when Cassie lights the squib. Abandoning her drunk act, she sits up and asks, directly and damningly, “What are you doing?” We’re primed for a confrontation, but then the scene abruptly cuts to the opening credits. If this were an opera, Cassie’s walk home, barefoot and lustily eating a hot dog, would be accompanied by a triumphal march out of Aida or singing a call-to-arms like a modern-day Brünnhilde. Here, we get the same psychologically revealing thrill via a remix of The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.”

If, as John Berger famously wrote in Ways of Seeing, men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at, then Cassie’s reckoning, while initially bloodless, is more castrating than any act of physical violence. She forces men to watch themselves as they look at women. This regular practice, routine as it becomes for Cassie, is far more personal and traumatic in origin — her best friend, a campus rape while they were in med school, allegations ignored, charges dropped, and what we’re left to assume was the friend’s suicide.

While Cassie became stunted by these events, dropping out of med school, continuing to live with her parents, and dressing in the marzipan colors of a teenage girl’s wardrobe, everyone else moved on. It’s when she reconnects with one of her other classmates, now a pediatric surgeon, and learns that her friend Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), is about to get married, that she abandons her routine of anonymous retribution toward something more bespoke — and far more self-destructive. And it is only after her second reckoning, a confrontation with the dean of her former medical school who ignored Nina’s report, that Cassie has her “Liebestod” moment, and when we start to see the exact toll this revenge spree will take on her. In this sense, Promising Young Woman is less of an homage to Tristan und Isolde as it is to Rigoletto, a 1851 opera from Wagner’s contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi, and a prototype for Fennell’s underlying thesis that revenge is a miserable and futile business.

The plots certainly align: the dissolute Duke of Mantua opens the opera by singing that, no matter who the woman is, he’ll move on any of them like a bitch. The music is jaunty and charming; boys will be boys. We then meet the Duke’s acid-tongued jester, Rigoletto, who is not merely an entertainer, but also complicit in facilitating his boss’s many liaisons. This results in many women seduced and abandoned. When the father of one such girl curses the Duke and Rigoletto, the clown is shaken to his core. Rigoletto has a daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden away to protect her virtue. And in 16th-century Mantua, a father’s curse is a strong currency.

As the plot progresses, more secrets are unlocked: Gilda has fallen in love with a young student who visits her when her father is at court. Kidnapped from her home one night by the Duke’s courtiers and delivered to his palace as a joke, Gilda then realizes that the student was the Duke in disguise. Rigoletto vows vengeance on the Duke and hires an assassin to kill his boss. Gilda learns of this plot and sacrifices her own life to save the Duke. The curse comes full circle.

What Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave could never make clear in Rigoletto due to censor laws, but what is abundantly clear in 2021, is that Gilda is not just seduced by the Duke — she’s raped. Even Gilda seems confused by her own narrative. Reunited with her father in the Duke’s palace after this event, she first cries out in shame, but soon switches to singing of how she fell in love with the student the Duke pretended to be; a love she still feels even as she sees her father’s revenge plot come together. Not even hearing the Duke sing the opera’s most famous aria (“La donna è mobile”) — about how it is the fickleness of women, not his own fecklessness, that is the real problem — changes her heart. Were Gilda in Cassie’s shoes, she would have forgiven Bo Burnham’s sweet but far from innocent pediatric surgeon, never gone to Al’s bachelor party, and instead wheeled her little pink suitcase into a new life: a boyfriend, a yoga class, a house and kids, and a job her mom could brag about. Gilda, however, does not have such a choice, so she walks into the home of the assassin her father hired, offering her life in place of her love’s.

Does she walk into her death out of doe-like devotion or damning defiance? Despite being key to the plot, Gilda as a character doesn’t offer much in terms of development or definition. Her main musical moments in the work are recycled melodies, parroting her male counterparts in duets, and her arias are more about the Duke than they are about her. In this sense, it seems like Gilda exists purely as a sacrificial lamb in a world full of wolves. Women are opera’s jewels, Clément writes, but “the role of a jewel, a decorative object, is not the deciding role.” Gilda exists to “perpetually sing [her] eternal undoing.”

Other directors, however, have tried to imagine a Gilda who is defiant, choosing death as a rebuke to her father, or as if to prove a point to the Duke about women’s fidelity in the most extreme manner. As much as I want either of these readings to work, however, I struggle with them in the absence of any textual evidence. A feminist, or at the very least a fully-rounded, Gilda may be the story we want, but it is not the story Verdi and Piave were telling. In the world of Rigoletto, Gilda is little more than gilding, barely even the role of a jewel. Perhaps, then, that’s where Emerald Fennell steps in. Initially, watching Promising Young Woman, I wondered what Fennell would make of a Rigoletto staging. But soon I realized that this most likely would be her Rigoletto, a revision of history and histrionics that leaves Cassie playing the dual role of defiant Gilda and vengeful Rigoletto.

With these roots in operatic tragedy and melodrama, it can come as no surprise that Cassie can’t outrun this addiction. Every stitch of her character as realized by Fennell and Mulligan points to the fact that she knows that this show-stopping act of retribution will most likely be the one that does her in. Even her name is a hint at clear-sightedness, Cassie being of course short for Cassandra, the prophetess of ancient Troy who was condemned to always be right, but never believed. Like Rigoletto, we willfully disregard the red flags and assume things will go according to plan, and are then shocked when we see Cassie’s dead body and Al alive. However, Fennell gives us one consolation: Cassie is no decorative jewel, and, in her undoing, she takes plenty of people down with her.

Moving into the final phase of her plan, Cassie has abandoned her main technique, forcing men to look at their own actions, and instead wants to remind Al — permanently, with the help of a scalpel — of the consequences his actions had on Nina. But before she can do so, Al kills her in extreme self-defense, the sort where the predictable burst of adrenaline sets off an aftershock of pent-up rage. “This is your fault,” he gasps as he pins her down and suffocates her. It’s the sort of Otello-esque death scene we pay for in opera, and most would end with this payoff; Cassie’s body cremated by Al and his friend the following morning. But Fennell hints at the self-awareness that most people have to at least some degree: when Al’s friend consoles him that Cassie’s death is not his fault, Al (still chained to the bed in one fuzzy pink handcuff) replies through tears: “I don’t know, it kinda seems like it is.”

The burning of Cassie’s body veers us back into Wagner territory, calling to mind Siegfried’s funeral pyre at the conclusion of the composer’s epic Ring Cycle. There, Siegfried’s wife Brünnhilde uses his cremation as the literal spark that destroys Valhalla, the home of the gods. Like Gilda, she rides into the flames, and this time there is no question that hers is a defiant, headlong rush into destruction that brings down everyone who was complicit in her undoing, mortal and immortal. We don’t mourn Brünnhilde’s death the way we do Gilda’s, or even Isolde’s. Her death is one used to restore order to a chaotically disordered world. In his meticulous stage directions, Wagner specifies that “[o]nly once the gods are completely engulfed in flames does the curtain fall.” The gods in the Ring may be crazy, but even they can’t outrun fate.

In one way, Cassie’s death is senseless. Like Gilda, unable to disabuse herself of her love for the Duke, she is unable to let go of what happened in med school; even Nina’s own mother telling her to move on seems to have no effect on Cassie. But it’s also so painstakingly planned, buffered by so much kindling, that it also makes total sense. Cassie uses her death to ensure that Al is arrested (on his wedding day, no less). At least in this small world, some order has been restored.

It’s the same, singular escape route that opera offers women: if the house always wins, then the solution is to burn down the house.


Olivia Giovetti has written for the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, and VAN Magazine (where she is also an editor). She’s currently working on a memoir about Wagner, ghost ships, and suicide.

LARB Contributor

Olivia Giovetti has written for The Washington PostLondon Review of BooksLiterary HubElectric LiteratureThe Millions, and VAN magazine (where she is also an editor). She’s currently working on a memoir.


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