CW: This article briefly discusses sexual assault and self-harm. The story also contains spoilers for the films Promising Young Woman and Saltburn.

It’s murder on the dancefloor! The line from Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit song has been stuck in my head for months now, and I can’t help but notice how aptly it describes both of director Emerald Fennell’s films: 2020’s Promising Young Woman and 2023’s Saltburn. The Fennell film universe is one of revenge, desire and obsession, and both conclude with character deaths during lively parties. The first word that comes to mind when trying to describe these two movies is  “strange,” making me wonder what kind of mind conjured up such unique storylines.

Born into a well-known family of London socialites, Fennell began her career acting in plays during her studies at Oxford University. After her 2007 debut in an episode of Trial & Retribution and a variety of television and film roles, Fennell was hired to write and produce the critically acclaimed BBC series Killing Eve. Before making her directorial debut, she played Camilla Shand in seasons three and four of The Crown.

Fennell wasted no time adjusting to being behind the camera. Her directorial debut Promising Young Woman scored five Academy Award nominations alongside hard-hitting dramas like Minari and Nomadland. The film was a success, with the New York Times describing its ending as the “strongest indicator of Fennell’s talent for digging into a character’s darkest desires.” But Promising Young Woman is not merely a mainstream award-winner. I’ve long puzzled over why one of the most bizarre films I saw in 2020 affected me so deeply.

Fennell begins the film with a bang: the main character Cassie, portrayed beautifully by Carey Mulligan, is alone and drunk at a bar. The viewer wonders how this woman got herself into this situation. How could she be so irresponsible? But, it turns out it’s all part of Cassie’s game. Once a week, Cassie pretends to be intoxicated to tempt a man into “helping” her get home safely. Every time, the man tries to take her home with him, where Cassie surprises them by being completely sober and teaches them a lesson about trying to take advantage of an incapacitated woman.

It is Fennell’s way of making the viewer realize the flaws in their own thought processes that makes this film so special. Of course, for Cassie, this is all about avenging her late best friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted while the two were in medical school together. Lawyers pressure Nina into dropping the charges against the perpetrator, and Nina ultimately takes her own life.

Fennell comments on serious, relevant topics with grace, interspersing tasteful comedic elements that lighten the film’s mood. Dramatic moments are balanced by quiet moments of reflection for Cassie as she dissects the grievances of her past. The dialogue is witty, yet intense, the themes quite grave, but the cinematography bright and delightful to look at. Confusing! Aside from the fact that they both involve Mulligan, on the surface, Saltburn and Promising Young Woman could not possibly be more different. Set in early 2000s England, the film follows Barry Keoghan’s Oliver and Jacob Elordi’s Felix as two Oxford freshmen. Oliver, supposedly poor and deemed “uncool,” develops a fascination with wealthy, popular Felix, and eventually bonds with him. Felix invites Oliver to his garish summer mansion, Saltburn, and the two share a debaucherous summer that ends in, well, lots of death.

First of all, Saltburn is aesthetically gorgeous. Shot on 35 mm film, the cinematography brings a dreamy, nostalgic feel to each frame almost as if you’ve been at Saltburn your entire life. The dialogue is quick and often humorous, especially from Pamela (Mulligan) and Elspeth (Pike). Known on social media primarily for its sex scenes — especially those featuring heartthrob Elordi — Saltburn has been trending for most of this winter. I really enjoyed this film upon the first watch, when shock value was at its peak, and I must admit, one can’t help but be put under the spell that is Saltburn, regardless of critiques one may have about the film.

As the film progresses, Oliver becomes increasingly enamored with Felix, to the point of  grotesquery. He simultaneously ingratiates himself to Felix’s family while covertly manipulating them through sex and violence. Eventually, it’s revealed that Oliver’s told quite a few lies about his “traumatic” past, and things take a darker turn from there. After a montage depicting Oliver’s birthday party at Saltburn, Felix suffers an unfortunate fate, as does the rest of his family shortly thereafter. A few years and murders later, Saltburn is left to Oliver, and a nude Barry Keoghan is dancing his way through his new estate to Sophie Ellis-Bexter’s “Murder on the Dance Floor.”

Like her characters Cassie and Oliver, Fennell has an agenda. In both of her films, she has shown a desire to portray storylines about obsession and vengeance. Perhaps her affinity for these themes stems from her own life and status — she draws on her experiences as a young woman, an Oxford alum and someone from a privileged background. Fennell does, after all, have a clear fascination with class and power dynamics, and both films involve someone deemed as “less than” plotting to greedily overtake someone else’s life or avenge past wrongdoing. When talking to people about these films, I’ve heard both described as leaving viewers wondering “what is going on?” I think it’s the poignant messiness of Fennell’s style that sets her apart. She’s two for two in terms of impacting the culture with her specific Fennell-esque genre of unsettling.

While we don’t exactly know which cinematic path she’ll follow next, it’s safe to say that, while twisted, gross and unnervingly colorful, Fennell’s films are here to question the status quo, and encourage us to wonder why we enjoy something so strange. Fennell’s in the business to leave us puzzled, make us think and make us come back for more.

Thumbnail graphic by Astry Rodriguez / North by Northwestern