The dating landscape in contemporary media is often lacquered with the sheen of an after-school special. The familiarity of dating apps and awkward sexual dynamics portrayed on screen can feel embarrassing and more like a hackneyed caricature of its realities: there is a reliance on the technological aspect as a trope, and the myriad of ways to visually depict texting and apps that can feel dated only months later. Television series like Fleabag or Master of None were perhaps timely when they were released, but upon revisiting, they offer little emotional sustenance or grit when it comes to their portrayal of modern dating culture. As though there is a script everyone insists on adhering to, the list of “shocking” heterosexual dating revelations depicted on screen is often the same. Maybe there’s an unsolicited dick pic, a lesson in kink, or a scene of a woman scared of walking home at night. As a single woman, viewing this kind of media served an unpleasant reminder of how terrible dating can be, and worse—it seemed as if no one really knew how to write it. It is clear that genre is ripe to skewer, but in what direction?
While I was convalescing during a bout of Covid, I quickly ran low on entertainment. I’d seen the poster for Mimi Cave’s film Fresh with little to no knowledge of its premise, but a mild curiosity in seeing Sebastian Stan out of the makeup of Tommy Lee (Stan plays Lee in the limited series, Pam & Tommy). A friend who was also sick joined me as we sat in our respective apartments for a simultaneous screening, thinking we were about to watch a film about a bad boyfriend. The experience turned out to be a bit like sneaking into a movie at the theater for the fun of it, and then actually sitting through the film with no roadmap to guide you. As someone who tends to read summaries before watching any suspense or thriller, this trust in being blindly led was liberating and in a way, we were right. Fresh really is about a bad boyfriend.
At this point, it is in your best interest to go back and watch the film without any further understanding of its concept, which its marketing materials coyly obscure. Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as Noa, a woman in her twenties who is experiencing the relentless fatigue of modern dating. After a bad date depicted with the derivative markers of this genre (a conversation about splitting the bill, some light misogyny, rude male entitlement), she later finds herself in the grocery store where a handsome stranger named Steve (Stan) asks for her phone number. The grocery store meet-cute is somewhere along the lines of being as fantastical as finding the person sitting next to you on a plane attractive, but it does strike me as a real-life possibility. Meeting by chance, out in the world is now seen as a quaint relic, but there remains a glimmer of hope that it may happen. There’s an understanding that this way of meeting your partner is more real or authentic and adds charm to origin stories, where, as in romance movies of the past, that first meeting was “fated.” Like Noa, we are disarmed by Steve’s confidence and grounded by his “I’m not that good at this” aura. After a few intimate dates where we see two beautiful people charm one another in the first flush of romance, Steve suggests a surprise weekend getaway. Noa tells her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), “I’m just going to go for it. You said, ‘Fuck it,’ remember?” Before hanging up Mollie tells her, “I’m excited for you. It’s a straight girl’s fantasy come true, right?”
After driving deep into the woods, Noa and Steve arrive at his impeccably designed postmodern home, where cell service is spotty. Upon arrival, there’s a distinct feeling that Noa is under the impression that after all the bad dates and bad lovers, she’s finally been granted a reprieve. Finally, a man who is handsome, well-off, and has taste. She sips the Kool-Aid in the form of a drugged Manhattan cocktail and as she passes out on the living room floor, the title credits begin to roll thirty-three minutes into the movie. This well-executed shift signals that the film has truly begun, accelerating our worst fears when accepting an invite from a man you hardly know.
This is a horror film, and more specifically, a film centered on cannibalism, but brushed with broad strokes of humor. Steve has built himself a niche and profitable business, harvesting young women’s “meat” for the “one percent of the one percent.” The fresher the flesh, the higher the price point. Their parts are vacuum sealed and packed for those elite few with accompanying mementos of the women, so those consuming the meat can feel “closer” to them. Noa must maneuver Steve’s fondness for her as her way of escape, without losing too many body parts in the process.
Fresh is at its most fun when it leans into the chaotic gore, where we find ourselves queasy but gleeful at each unhinged turn. Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn’s script is weaker when it tries to mimic the heavy-handed tropes of modern dating but soars in bloody mayhem. There’s something to be said for going beyond subtle metaphors and leaning head first into chaos, forcing the viewer to find something familiar within the most extreme circumstances. Some reviewers stated that the film was predictable for its genre, but I must admit, I did not predict where this was going to go. Perhaps Fresh is not a film for horror aficionados, but as someone who specializes in romantic comedies, this was a horror film for me.
What struck me most was Stan’s portrayal of a perfect narcissistic sociopath. There were shades of people whom friends and I have dated within the Steve character. A self-assuredness and justification of any bad behavior, carried with a sense that “If you have a problem with it, it’s only a problem for you.” Handsome, but not unapproachable or too polished. As I texted my friend, “He looks like the kind of guy people would swipe right on.” Stan knows to wield Steve’s charisma in the most dangerous way—with warm candor. Blind to his own villainy and manipulation, the worst narcissists are the ones that believe they’re kind. In one of many of his monologues, Steve says, “It's about giving. Giving yourself over to somebody. Becoming one with someone else forever. And that’s…that’s a beautiful thing. That’s surrender. That’s love.” This line could be lifted from any date where someone gives an impassioned argument for commitment, and rings familiar; but in this scene, Steve is describing the sensation of eating people. The pleasures of the ultimate luxury, at the expense of women. Our very own capitalist Bluebeard.
In Charles Perrault’s 1697 folktale, the woman Bluebeard marries does so against her better judgment. Her hesitations are chiseled away by the lavish fun he provides, “In short, the time rolled on in so much pleasure, that the youngest of the two sisters began to think that the beard which she had been so much afraid of, was not so very blue, and that the gentleman who owned it was vastly civil and pleasing.” It is a humorous part of the story that highlights how timeless women’s rationalizations are when it comes to love. Even in a story of a serial killer with a blue beard, it rings truer to life. Comedic horror lifts reality into a space where you may laugh at life’s lunacy. The stylish 2016 Anna Biller film The Love Witch also comes to mind, where the question does not stop at “What if you found a man to fall in love with you?” It adds, “What if they all died?”
We are at a time where the stakes of romantic reality television have had to morph into over-the-top scenarios and social experiments. Yet, there’s a sense that our fictional heroines have grown stagnant. As Ayesha Siddiqi writes, “The last decade of fiction starring single late 20s-early 30s white women recycles different iterations of the same boring, selfish, reckless, cynical and unmoored depressive figure with a dissatisfying sex life that they organize the rest of their lives around […] Don’t we all already know this story by now? Rather than saying something more, something different, we’re being inundated with successively less dimensional versions.” In efforts to be as “real” as possible, we have lost any truth in cinematic representations of dating culture. We must shake off these previous conventions and inject fun back into the portrayal of dating. I want comedic carnage, not a mirror to our dating landscape within which I already exist. The funniest part of dating is how ridiculous it is, and how ugly it can get. Maybe Steve was onto something: we all have an appetite for blood.