Opera Meets Film: How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Dialogues With Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Emerald Fennell’s debut feature “Promising Young Woman.”

SPOILERS AHEAD

In “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie (Carrie Mulligan), embarks on a mission to exact revenge on the people that destroyed the life of her best friend Nina.

She has four people in her crosshairs, including her former best friend Madison, the Med School Dean, the lawyer who made her friend withdraw her case, and the guy who raped her.

She targets the women first, forcing them into pained realities of what it feels like to doubt the words of another woman who has been hurt by a man.

It takes a toll on her.

And after toying with Dean Walker, we cut to a scene in which she’s stopped in the middle of the road, drained. A car starts beeping at her, followed by a slew of profanities coming from the male driver, who stops right next to her to continue the verbal assault.

At this moment, we start hearing the climactic buildup of the famed “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” And at that moment, Cassie snaps.

She gets out of her car, grabs an iron bar, and dishes some mayhem on the car, destroying its lights and then windshield, Wagner’s immortal music ascending in tension toward its inevitable climax.

The scene ends with the guy running off in his damaged car and Cassie standing in the intersection with Wagner’s music finally finding its harmonic climax and resolution.

It’s one of the most dynamic visual moments in the film, the camera following and circling Cassie in extended takes. It’s glorious mayhem, matched only by Wagner’s equally thrilling music.

To this point in the film, we’ve seen Cassie exact psychological revenge on men trying to take advantage of her, convincing them that she’s drunk, letting their rapist tendencies come to the fore, and then subverting the entire game on them – marking these “good guys” for all time.

But we hadn’t seen her outwardly attack them in a brutally physical way, even though we not only know that she wants to, but that they also deserve it. And so it is in this moment, that we (and she) get this catharsis, matched perfectly with the elation of Wagner’s transcendent score.

But of course, as is the case with “Tristan und Isolde,” an opera built on the Schopenhauerian principle of constant suffering without and respite until death, this catharsis is only momentary. Cassandra suddenly comes to, utters her own expletive, and rushes into her car out of sight. It’s a comic punchline to a film whose tone is constantly shifting in much the way its central protagonist is.

Beyond One Scene

But the “Tristan” reference goes beyond this scene. In fact, the Liebestod itself foreshadows the entire film in many ways. But in other ways, we can see “Promising Young Woman” as in constant dialogue with the epic Wagner opera.

For one, Cassie suffers from start to finish, trying to find some way to overcome the wound that will not leave her – the death and trauma of her friend Nina. This is no different from the Wagnerian opera wherein Tristan and Isolde constantly carry wounds with them – their love for one another and then a literal gaping wound in the case of Tristan that leads to his death. In both cases, the wounds are / were literal and metaphorical.

But we also get callbacks to the opera in other ways, including the film’s constant use of the drink motif. At the core of Wagner’s famed opera is a love potion that brings the lovers together, and allows them to open up about their feelings for one another; moreover, in the case of Isolde, the beverage allows her to let go of the hate she feels for Tristan at the start of the opera. When Brangäne reveals the love potion to King Marke, he is ready to forgive Tristan’s betrayal. So in a sense, the potion in “Tristan und Isolde” serves as a means of clarifying the mind and creating openness.

“Promising Young Woman” is full of drinks, but instead of the “healing” and “clarifying” effect in “Tristan,” they actually cloud the senses and leave people vulnerable. At the start of the film, men comment on how a supposedly drunk Cassie is “asking for it.” It’s precisely this attitude and actions that lead to Nina’s rape by Al Monroe and his buddies. Cassie then reverses the trend by spiking quite a few drinks to get back at the traitors. In this light, drinks symbolize deceitfulness and danger and nowhere is this more emblematic than in the most unexpected of moments – Ryan and Cassie’s first meeting at the coffee shop where Cassie works. Out of spite and as part of a joke, she spits in Ryan’s coffee cup. Ryan drinks it up, a vomit-inducing act that is meant to “endear us” to him, before he is later revealed to be as deceitful and disgusting as that opening action.

Like in “Tristan,” there is also an emphasis on true friendship and the deceit of “supposed friends.” Wagner’s opera focuses primarily on the opposition between Melot (a traitor who is supposed to be Tristan’s best friend) and Kurwenal (who stands beside him to the death). There is also Brangäne, who remains with Isolde throughout the opera. In the case of “Promising Young Woman,” we see Cassie living out Nina’s pain in her own life and the direct opposition from Madison, who could care less and deserted her friend in the moment of need. Ryan’s revealed betrayal and Al’s best friend running off on him also prove to be “Melots” in this film.

But what of the ending which is arguably Fennell’s greatest alignment and comment on the opera? When Al ultimately kills Cassie at her moment of triumph, the film suggests the traditional Aristotelean tragedy in which its central heroine’s need for revenge ultimately leads to her death and a loss of hope for any righting of wrongs.

That’s where the “Liebestod” and its foreshadowing comes in. For in Wagner’s opera, the two lovers could never find fulfillment in daily life, where the structures of the world around them would always hinder their ability to be together. They can only find that fulfillment of their love in death. And as portrayed in the opera, Isolde, in a moment of pure bliss, is both part of the real world and beyond it.

So, it is rather fitting that as Al Monroe and the entire patriarchal establishment is ready to celebrate its victory after throwing aside another woman that posed a threat to its way of life, Cassie “returns from the dead” one last time.

Except, this time, she’s not alone. As the cops arrest Al and end the festivities, Ryan receives a series of scheduled texts from Cassie AND Nina. Like Isolde, she’s still there with them in spirit, but she’s also beyond them all, reunited with Nina so that they can heal together.

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Opera Meets Film