Saltburn: A Little Too Much All the Time

Review / November 2023
Saltburn: A Little Too Much All the Time
by Ella Fox-Martens

It’s 2003, and as the new class of well-heeled freshers mingle in a sunny, imposing courtyard at Oxford University, Oliver sees Felix for the first time. Or rather, we see Oliver seeing Felix. His pale face leers through a small window, confined to the corner of the screen in an unsubtle, effective composition that will be replicated many times over throughout the course of Saltburn. The beautiful people stand in the sun, and Oliver skulks around in the shadows, peeping, barred from entry. But not for long.

The parameters of Emerald Fennell’s second feature are familiar enough. Barry Keoghan’s Oliver is a Northern, reclusive student who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jacob Elordi’s affable, golden boy Felix. Oliver, with his tortured backstory (poor! drug-addicted parents! from Merseyside!) is a natural and adoring receptacle for Felix’s charity and attention. Yet there’s something off-putting about him too — none of Felix’s friends like him, not least his shabby-bourgeois cousin Farley, and Oliver’s inclination to trot at Felix’s heels and insist on cleaning his room is clearly ruining the friendship. All is forgotten, however, when Oliver’s dad dies and Felix invites him home to his estate for the summer. Home to Saltburn, where his ludicrous, genteel family await.

The list of Fennell’s cinematic influences is obvious, ranging from Parasite (2019) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Call Me By Your Name (2017) (hello adjoining bathroom and unorthodox consumption of bodily fluids), to Knives Out!  (2019) and Atonement (2007). The film is deeply interested in the sensations of class; not only how wealth looks, but how it feels — the warm luxury of a summer’s day, the touch of a silk robe, the clink of expensive silverware. ‘Eat the rich’ takes on an entirely different meaning in Saltburn; Oliver clearly wishes to consume Felix from the inside out. He wanders around the careless opulence of Saltburn (Drayton House, which has never been used for filming before, was the movie’s primary location), becoming more and more comfortable with his surroundings, burrowing deeper into Felix’s family like a termite into wood. He tries it on with Venetia, Felix’s sister, and then Farley, and ultimately Felix’s own mother in a successful attempt at wriggling his way up the social ladder.

It’s all rendered in beautiful, lush cinematography, peppered with little early aughts fashion details (Elordi’s vintage Ralph Lauren polos and crumpled linens are a highlight). The camera lingers on the idyllic, maintained bodies of Felix and Venetia with the appreciation you might have for a sports-car; a kind of desexualised desire born purely of aesthetics. Jacob Elordi, probably by virtue of his sheer physique, plays an entitled layabout with ease, while Rosamund Pike is fantastic as the flighty, suggestible Elspeth (“Men are so lovely and dry,” she remarks about a lesbian stint in her youth). Then there’s the surprise stand-out of Alison Oliver as bleach-blonde, blue-blooded Venetia, who proves that you shouldn’t judge an actress by the tyranny of a Sally Rooney screenplay. I don’t even need to comment on Barry Keoghan’s performance; he’s excellent, if a little too mature to be playing an eighteen year-old. Some of the framing is fascinating (Keoghan is often upside down, splayed out like a sacrifice) and the colour-grading is pitch-perfect — a foggy Oxford morning is so crisply blue you can practically taste it. Saltburn is  a film made for TikTok videos and Instagram posts, dizzily visually impressive.

Yet the runtime is overblown, and the twists, when they come, are largely predictable. Racism is briefly and inelegantly raised via Farley, who is Black, and never interrogated again. Worse, the final revelations around Oliver’s true background and motivations have the effect of complicating Saltburn’s class politics, rendering it meaningless. If Fennell set out to produce a Parasite-esque satire on wealth, she’s actually emerged with a perfect representation of upper-class anxiety, most particularly around the inheritance and maintenance of property. Yes, Saltburn seems to say, the middle-class are coming for the landed-gentry, and they will stop at nothing — not fraud, suicide, murder or rented tuxedos — until they have schemed their way into your precious country estates. Beware! Fennell, who played Camilla in seasons three and four of The Crown, seems also to have drawn from Kate Middleton’s infamous university years with Prince William (who I would think Felix is modelled after) and the tabloid’s fixation with her family’s determined social-climb. It’s so English, isn’t it; fine to hate the nobility from afar, but woe betide you if you get above your station. In the end, despite Fennell’s protestations that we’re meant to find them repugnant, the Cattons are idealised and romanticised, and their way of life is depicted as hypnotically and exclusively rewarding, until Oliver comes along to ruin it all

However irritating, beautiful, audacious and shocking you found Fennell’s debut Promising Young Woman (a movie that only survived its clumsy mangling of the rape-revenge genre by the grace of Carey Mulligan), Saltburn outdoes it. There’s blood, menstrual cunnilingus, drugs, borrowed cufflinks, necrophilia and a head-aching amount of nudity. It’s also immense fun; a hearty stab at the aesthetic and dry humour of The Menu (2023) that goes wrong somewhere around its second half, but not in any way that detracts from the thrill of witnessing Barry Keoghan take off his pants and try to fuck a freshly-dug grave. It’s a little too much, all the time, but it goes down as smoothly as a glass of vermouth at your crazy rich friend’s ancient summer house. Just don’t look too closely, or the entire thing might fall apart with you still in it.

Image Credits:
Image 1+2: Courtesy of Warner Bros. UK