Since my first viewing of Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn”’ in theaters and my subsequent watching with friends on New Year’s Eve, I’ve joined the legions of online users making sense of the movie, which with its erotic and graphic scenes has resulted in enough commentary on Letterboxd and X to fill an ancient tome found in the fictional estate’s library. What about “Saltburn” enamors some viewers and repulses others?
“Saltburn” follows shy outcast Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) as he starts his first year at Oxford. After struggling to fit in at first, he meets charismatic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and they quickly become friends, despite their starkly different backgrounds: Oliver claims he had a tumultuous upbringing, with alcoholic parents and financial struggles, while Felix comes from a family of aristocrats. When Felix finds out that Oliver’s father has suddenly died, he invites Oliver to spend their summer break at his family’s country house, Saltburn.
There, Oliver is introduced to Felix’s mother, Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Felix’s American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who attends Oxford with Felix and Oliver is also in tow, much to Oliver’s chagrin—as Farleigh starts to get jealous and suspicious of Oliver and Felix’s sudden closeness.
Despite not being used to the upper-class standards of Saltburn, Oliver grows comfortable with his surroundings. Maybe too comfortable. After Oliver watches Felix masturbate in the bath, he drinks the remnants of Felix’s bathwater, marking the first of Oliver’s increasingly absurd and obsessive behavior. This scene has fueled major online discourse: there is now a “Jacob Elordi’s Bathwater” scented candle available to purchase on Etsy. Amazon Prime, the streaming platform where you can watch the movie, even posted a still from the scene with the caption “boy dinner.”
Oliver’s true nature is quickly revealed as he mentally and sexually manipulates both Venetia and Farleigh to adhere to his whims, and yet, neither Felix nor his parents have caught on to his behavior. With Oliver’s birthday approaching, Lady Elspeth insists that the family host him a “Midsummer’s Night”-themed birthday party at Saltburn, to which James responds, “I can finally wear my suit of armor!”
On the day of Oliver’s birthday, Felix takes him for a surprise drive. When they arrive at Oliver’s family home, Felix is surprised to see both of Oliver’s parents, alive and sober. During their drive back to Saltburn, Felix orders Oliver to leave in the morning following his birthday party that night. As the festivities kick off with Renaissance flair and a substantial amount of cocaine, a distraught Oliver, wearing an antler headband, wanders through the estate looking for Felix. Oliver eventually creeps up on him having sex with someone in the center of the mansion’s maze.
In the morning, Felix is found dead. After Oliver accompanies the rest of the family during their grieving process—and fornicates with Felix’s grave when everyone leaves—Venetia is found dead in a bathtub and Farleigh is expelled from the estate. Thus begins the Catton family’s demise and Oliver’s takeover.
As one Letterboxd user put it, “I swear that freak gained new powers every time he consumed the bodily fluids of this family.”
“Saltburn” was a departure from Fennell’s freshman film, “Promising Young Woman,” which is a chilling and damning depiction of rape culture. Fennell’s directorial debut garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Film Editing, and Fennell ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. A commentary on the societal reactions to accusations of rape, “Promising Young Woman” contains more of a relevant and direct message than “Saltburn.”
While “Saltburn” is a stunningly beautiful film, aesthetically, its story has left many critics wanting. The film hasn’t had the same level of acclaim as “Promising Young Woman,” though both movies boast strong acting performances (Alison Oliver’s last monologue as Venetia gave me chills). At the Golden Globes this year, “Saltburn” was nominated for Best Actor (Keoghan) and Best Supporting Actress (Pike). In contrast, at the 2021 Golden Globes, “Promising Young Woman” was nominated for Best Actress, Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
While “Promising Young Woman” and ”Saltburn” have each provoked divisive reactions from viewers, in “Saltburn,” Fennell’s artistry isn’t as refined. Still, “Saltburn” has taken over the Internet as a result of its provocative nature and star-studded cast. “Saltburn” critics argue that its sensationalism does not yield any significant theme or moral. “It’s crazy that a movie about class and the ultra-wealthy made in 2023 has so little to say,” another Letterboxd reviewer wrote. “Maybe the movie wasn’t trying to say anything and it just wanted to be a romp. That being said, it’s a pretty fun romp.”
"Maybe the movie wasn't trying to say anything and it just wanted to be a romp. That being said, it's a pretty fun romp."
“Saltburn,” which is heavily focused on class, fails to take a clear position on capitalism. Once Oliver’s parents are revealed to be alive and comfortably middle-class, the have versus have-not tension between Oliver and the Catton family seems inconsequential. Seeing Oliver in the context of his comfortable colonial home and his two worried parents reveal a character who is not driven by safety or warmth, but instead motivated by more sinister, pathological forces. The only clear motive is that he simply wants to be Felix and selfishly devour the decadence and excess of his lifestyle, as he chases an undying craving.
Whatever the case, these suppositions are overshadowed by the perverted, voyeuristic nature of the film—most of which fails to advance the plot. Its cinematic style is admirable, with its grandiose shots of the estate, elegant costume design, and viral soundtrack, but relying on shock value to gain notoriety blinds an audience to the real value and complexities of a concept like “Saltburn.”
This is the crux of “Saltburn” and its polarization. An admirer of Fennell’s work in “Promising Young Woman,” like myself, might expect to experience the same thematic complexities in “Saltburn.” Maybe we were setting ourselves up for disappointment, expecting the film to “say” something profound when instead, it simply follows a linear trajectory of Oliver’s gradual ascendance and takeover of the family with minimal complications. This is why “Saltburn” initially struck me as pure shock value dressed up in rhetoric befitting a more striking narrative. The best way to enjoy “Saltburn” is simply to relish all of its campy glory.
Design by Isa Luzarraga
Story originally published in Keke Magazine