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Indulgence and the Guilty Pleasure of Saltburn

Heavy spoilers for the film are included below!

Despite winning an Oscar for her debut film Promising Young Woman, some criticized Emerald Fennell for not making the protagonist's actions more extreme. The writer/director is back with a vengeance nearly four years later. Her new film Saltburn follows an unassuming Oxford student as he spends the summer at his new friend's expansive estate. The raucous black comedy may not be the most nuanced or shocking film to be released, but it's a thrilling spectacle in dazzling debauchery and an entertaining way to spend two hours.

Set in the summer of 2006, the film is by all accounts a "modern" take on gothic literature and film. With clear inspirations from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wuthering Heights, and Brideshead Revisited, Saltburn updates themes of obsession, homoeroticism, and the British country home tale. The story begins with a flash-forward of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) reminiscing about his love for Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). After a montage of Elordi and Keoghan asking, "Was I in love with him?" we are sprung into the story's beginning. A nerdy Oxford student, Oliver begins his journey with one barely tolerable friend and an immediately recognizable desire to immerse himself in the popular crowd. After being taken in under the wing of the effortlessly cool chick magnet Felix, he immediately becomes enamored with the charming man. After Oliver confides that his father has tragically died, Felix invites him to stay at Saltburn, his family's enormous estate in the countryside. An ensemble of cartoonishly exaggerated characters, including Felix's mother, Elspeth (a delightfully crisp Rosumand Pike), his father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant), his sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), his cousin, Farleigh (an impressively suave Archie Madekwe), and the hauntedly calm groundskeeper Duncan (Paul Rhys) greet the boys at the property. The only other visitor is Elspeth's friend Pamala (Carey Mulligan), who's quickly ushered out of the home after the matriarch realizes her eccentric wardrobe does not make up for a lack of personality.

The more Oliver is confronted with his status as an outsider, the more obsessive he becomes with seductively infiltrating the family. He flirts with Elspeth, feeds Venetia her period blood, and avenges an earlier humiliation by Farleigh through sexual intimidation. Tortuously unaffected by Oliver’s schemes, Felix’s compassionate effort to reconnect Oliver with his mother results in his discovery that the friend he invited into his home is a liar. As Oliver’s lie about being impoverished and fatherless is discovered, he turns to methodically murdering the family until inheriting Saltburn for himself. In the film’s final scene, Oliver struts nude through his new estate in a fully choreographed dance number to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor.” Both chilling and cathartic, his nudity serves as both a desecration of the family and a tongue-in-cheek reminder of how he slept his way to the top.

Saltburn revels in its discomforting eroticism. Both Oliver and the camera linger on Elordi’s charmingly relaxed Felix. As the focal interest of Oliver’s obsession, the lack of released sexual tension results in Keoghan’s character expressing his desire through… unique methods. With digital fan culture becoming more graphic and hyperbolic, Oliver’s increasingly desperate attempts to satisfy his unrequited yearning for his wealthy friend mimics the absurd devotion from fans in the internet age. However, it doesn’t diminish the shock from the now-infamous bathtub scene. Audiences are familiar that Oliver’s infatuation with Felix is all-consuming, just not literally. While fangirls ask celebrities to stomp on them and twitch streamers successfully sell used bathwater, when Keoghan slowly and desperately begins slurping a cum-lined bathtub, it still succeeds in being both unrelenting and stomach-churning.

The tangible effort felt by Oliver is foiled by the effortless Felix Catton, played by a relaxed and often barefoot Jacob Elordi. His track record as a dreamy heartthrob (in both cheesy films like the Kissing Booth franchise and prestige work like Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, released mere weeks before Saltburn) explains why he is a natural choice. Despite Felix’s pull and cravings for attention, Elordi makes the character even more inviting through compassionate behavior and a consistently kind disposition. Felix (although occasionally whiny) is not cheapened by the cruelty that many other rich characters exhibit. Instead, he embodies the relaxation that comes with attractiveness and unthinkable wealth.

However, actor Barry Keoghan single-handedly elevates Saltburn. Notorious for his consistently odd and unsettling roles, it’s far from his first murderous character. Yet, Oliver Quick provides Keoghan with a previously unseen opportunity to be a sensual leading man (while remaining appropriately pathetic).

Oliver’s homoerotic devotion towards Felix is merely one element in what director and writer Emerald Fennell has described as her “suck the rich” film. The uptick in the eat-the-rich subgenre has trained audiences to expect provocations about the immorality of exuberant wealth. So, for a film designed to scandalize viewers, it is surprising to see the most malicious acts committed by the audience’s most financially relatable. The family’s worst offense is passive aggression, a fault that feels incredibly tame in comparison to Oliver’s grave-fucking and murder. Within this world, being upper middle class is a far more horrifying positionality. The comparatively neutral attitude regarding wealth disparity may be attributed to Fennell’s posh upbringing. I could say more, but Fennell’s father has a page on Wikipedia that says more than I need to. Saltburn may not be a significant achievement in class satire, but I don’t think it is attempting to be. Saltburn aligns itself more closely with the sultry, sleazy, and soapy teen movies of the 90s like Cruel Intentions. It’s more Wild Things than Triangle of Sadness. With that expectation set, it’s more fun to soak into how Emerald Fennell salaciously commits to unrestricted indulgence. The film doesn’t shy away from unearthing humiliating fantasies, which is why it succeeds most when shamelessly salivating over the excessive grandeur of its characters and setting. Audiences get to voyeuristically peep in on the gaudy excess of the estate and erotic characters the exact way Oliver does.

The rich cinematography aids this spectacle. The horizontally condensed 1:33:1 aspect ratio makes every shot drenched in grandeur. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren ensures rich and ornate visuals in every frame. After earning an Academy Award for his work on La La Land, Saltburn continues Sandgren’s streak of leeching beauty out of baroque estates and college dorms. The setting’s absurd exuberance is humorously paired with disdainfully casual clutter. And after senses are overwhelmed by spectacular sights, Sandgren and Fenell slow the pace when desire is at its highest. Oliver’s bathtub and graveyard scenes play out with a precise stillness. The prolonged length of these single-shot sequences will send audiences reeling (unable to look away).

Saltburn is a vivacious comedy and an instant entry into a list of scandalous sleepover flicks. Although the story is straightforward and not as provocative as many have advertised, the gleefully sensual performances and gorgeous visuals create an elevated final product. And while its obsession with aristocratic wealth may conjure may prompt thoughts about old money and generations, it’s still probably not a good film to see with the grandparents.

Written by Mary Leer

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