Credit: Amazon Studios
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Spotlight

Saltburn — Emerald Fennell

November 20, 2023

As a television actor whose first directorial effort, a spiky genre mash-up that nebulously spoke to the zeitgeist, won an Academy Award for their screenwriting, and instantly established them as an “above the title” brand, what’s a young filmmaker to do for a follow-up? If you’re Jordan Peele, you continue to use horror as a means of engaging in social commentary and cement your status as a box office unicorn able to draw audiences in large part through association alone. And if you’re Emerald Fennell, you double-down on being an edgelord, treating provocation and disreputability as your guiding light. That could be interpreted as a rebuke of her new film, Saltburn, but not when meeting the film on its own decadent, empty-headed terms. The mistake of Promising Young Woman, Fennell’s Oscar-winning debut, is that it mistook unfocused female rage in a post-Trump/#MeToo era for scathing commentary about the battle of the sexes; muddying a bubble gum-pop take on an exploitation picture that, to its slight credit, had a knack for upending the viewer’s expectations. No such delusions of grandeur here: Saltburn is all shimmering surfaces and throbbing libido, and whatever its stated interests in exploring upward mobility, it’s all secondary to running heedlessly toward debauchery and catty jabs at the ultra-wealthy. It may not amount to more than a feature-length version of the Sicko peeping through the window cartoon, but it’s the better film for it. 

Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a lonely underclassman on an academic scholarship at Oxford. The product of a working-class community with a miserable home life, Oliver stands out amidst all the old money and legacy admissions. What he longs for is his classmate, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), and all that he represents. Lanky and classically handsome — DP Linus Sandgren plays up the character’s “golden god” appearance by bathing the actor in warm natural light and shooting him like he’s starring in an eau de parfum commercial — Felix has beautiful women hanging off of him, looks great in everything he wears no matter how little thought he puts into it, and seems to be beloved by all without having to try very hard. When opportunity presents itself for Oliver to intervene on Felix’s behalf, briefly allowing him to play the role of white knight, he jumps at it and is instantly ushered past the velvet rope into a better life. Felix treats Oliver like a wounded bird he can nurse back to health, and Oliver is all too happy to share the heartbreaking details of his life while living off the runoff of his new friend’s largesse. When tragedy strikes Oliver back at home, Felix extends an invitation that he spend the summer with him at his family’s house in the English countryside to help forget his troubles. 

The “house,” which lends the film its title, is an enormous estate dating back centuries, and it’s a shooting gallery of blinkered aristocrats going slowly mad from boredom. There’s mom, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), a former model and socialite — the sort of woman who apropos of nothing declares that the Pulp song “Common People” wasn’t written about her, even if, yes, she and “Jarvis” knew one another, and wishes people would stop mentioning it — who, like her son, is drawn to hard-luck cases. Dad, Sir. James Catton (Richard E. Grant, looking as though he’s stuck his finger in an electrical outlet), spends his days watching DVDs and contemplating what he’ll wear to the next extravagant party they’re throwing, while Felix’s younger sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), lingers about in increasingly revealing outfits hoping to catch the eye of their new guest. And finally, there’s Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a ne’er-do-well cousin dug into the family like a tick who, alone, recognizes Oliver for the parasite he plainly is; as the expression goes, it takes one to know one. It all adds up to a portrait of obscene wealth giving way to obscenity itself. It’s the sort of place where, as Felix gives Oliver the lay of the house, conveyed in an unbroken Steadicam shot as we hurry past assorted museum pieces, he can’t help but call out that the bed that once belonged to Henry VIII may still contain trace elements of the annulment-happy royal’s “spunk.” 

Oliver spends idyllic summer days living the sweet life at Saltburn, gorging himself on the generosity of the Cattons and embracing the highbrow-lowbrow ethos of the household. Group sunbathing in the nude gives way to playing tennis in tuxedos and evening gowns — all in the same montage, set to MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” — and long days spent lounging on deck chairs, which affords opportunity to gaze at Felix glistening in repose. Through it all, Oliver demonstrates an uncanny gift for identifying exactly what his hosts need to feel fulfilled, be that flattering Elspeth’s vanity and bitchiness, feigning interest in antiquities for James, or serving as a sexual plaything for first Venetia and then Farleigh (the film is appreciably frank about physiology and bodily fluids in particular). It’s all in service of remaining a fixture at Saltburn; prolonging a beautiful dream of moneyed culture and earthly delights, all paid for by someone else. It’s a dynamic that will no doubt be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, particularly the unrequited sexual longing and regular self-reinvention of its underhanded protagonist. However, while Matt Damon’s title character was defined by his shame in being an outsider and torment over his then-unfashionable desires, Oliver’s a more cheerful sociopath, and a clear product of his times. The character’s bisexuality is merely a means to an end, and it becomes apparent over time that his feelings for Felix have less to do with genuine love than identifying an avatar for the sort of life he wishes for himself. He’s a man caught between stations, and all that time with his nose pressed against the glass has blessed him with a keen understanding of how to exploit people’s vulnerabilities. 

Whatever its intentions in exploring class or the way the rich romanticize misfortune, what Saltburn truly excels at is conveying FOMO in a pre-social media world. The film is predominantly a period piece, although nailing down the exact year in which it’s set can be a bit tricky. All the alt-rock needle drops and pop culture references are from the mid-2000s, yet the film opens with a sign welcoming the graduating class of ‘06, which would typically imply the film is set in 2002; either the filmmakers don’t understand how that works or they merely believed audiences wouldn’t care (as Fennell is herself a product of Oxford, let’s be charitable and assume the latter). Regardless, what matters is the action predates smartphones, Instagram, and young adults incessantly documenting their social lives for the consumption of others. It all lends an ephemeral quality to the reverie at Saltburn. You had to be there to appreciate the bacchanalia. The raging parties and sexual exploits take on an almost mythical quality that the film is more than happy to rhapsodize and invite the viewer into. The house becomes Hogwarts by way of Sam Levinson: sprawling affairs of dancing and designer drugs that spill out onto the grounds of the estate — which includes a hedge maze with a Minotaur statue at its center — all bathed in alternating warm and cool gels and built around different flamboyant themes. When Keoghan spends a key stretch of the film wandering the premises wearing costume antlers, it can be interpreted as a Neverland-style distortion of reality; or, on the most literal level, it may be merely reiterating how horny the film is (a dormitory double entendre in keeping with the film’s impertinence).

Of equal importance, the film captures the last moment in history when a person didn’t voluntarily create a digital trail of breadcrumbs that could lead back to their true identity; one could present themselves however they wished without fear of someone using Google to sniff out the lie. It was a glorious time for fabulists like Oliver, and one can sense the film’s admiration for the way the quietly amoral character plays his host family like a violin. Alas, the film overreaches in its tacky luridness — corralling excess is difficult by design — particularly when it attempts to couple hedonistic impulses with psychological depth. The last act in particular presents cascading revelations about the depths of Oliver’s depravity that merely serve to underline that which could almost certainly be inferred, and threatens to push the film, which is already proudly garish, squarely into the realms of camp. Never is that more evident than in Saltburn’s concluding sequence, an already infamous bit of full-frontal liberation from Keoghan where the film’s self-amusement over how cheeky (literally) it’s been starts to curdle. Make no mistake, Saltburn is blatant junk, but in its best moments it recognizes as much and taps into the viewer’s most base desires. You can feel yourself getting fatter off its empty calories, but the dopamine hit is real, like eating a greasy-spoon cheeseburger after a night of heavy drinking. Or whatever the 1% equivalency might be.

DIRECTOR: Emerald Fennell;  CAST: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Carey Mulligan;  DISTRIBUTOR: MGM;  IN THEATERS: November 17;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 7 min.