Petty Bourgeois: Why “Saltburn” Stings

A stylized shot of a man's naked back in a dimly lit room in Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn".

Another film gains notoriety on social media—albeit among people who don’t watch films. There are some notorious scenes (better not watch that with your mum in the room!). The word of mouth creates imaginative hyperbole. Next thing you know, it’s the film of the season. Variety and BuzzFeed start up the click factory. YouTube essays. Think-pieces. Heavy-breathing equivocation.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is the latest in a long line of chic millennial horror films—the word ‘horror’ here meaning: ‘something to titillate middle class consumers’. Over a decade of darlings from A24 have laid the ground for New Hollywood. And what’s more, these are filmmakers with a social conscience: a social critique, even. Narratives of classism, bourgeois excess and social injustice have become the default subtext of the genre, its cause celebre. Triangle of Sadness and The Menu number among the recent additions to social media’s ‘Eat the Rich’ hashtag.

My problem with Saltburn is that it feels tired. Its message lacks force. Its means lack originality. In short, it’s a film that lacks even as it throws everything and the kitchen sink towards a resolution.

The story begins with a young man, played by Barry Keoghan, blagging an invitation to his posh school-chum’s family home. Right away, we can sense there’s something villainous about this guy. Even before the predictable reveal, his charade is entirely transparent to the audience (but not, confusingly, the other characters). In a nutshell, he wants the manor house to himself and sets about picking off the various family members one by one. Saltburn concludes on a darkly camp note, with Keoghan dancing around in the nude—and on the graves of his victims, by implication. It’s like ‘My Last Duchess’, as reimagined by Jerry Springer.

For a film so in love with its own literary facility, there’s a conspicuous dearth of nuance. All the wealthy characters are either shallow or stupid and Barry Keoghan’s character has nothing going for him besides his very obvious duplicity. The audience never learns why he’s driven to do the things he does apart from a vague sense of social revenge (the haves vs the have-nots). His unrequited lust for Jacob Elordi’s character is also merely a cipher, for the filmmakers can’t seem to figure out the nature of the infatuation, other than a convenient excuse to objectify male bodies.

Why does it have to be this way? Peter Mendak’s Ruling Class is one of the most ludicrous social satires ever made, and yet one never feels patronised. In Saltburn, however, everyone acts unrealistically gullible and naive merely because it serves the convenience of the plot (and assuages the guilt of its liberal creators, but more on that later). Rosamund Pike, an otherwise stellar actress, plays a character so easily suggestible that it borders on an actual mental disability.

I should just say, at this juncture, that we’ve seen this all before and better. Various reviews have taken pains to point out the literary connections to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley cycle as well as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (conspicuously referenced in the script). But it’s older than that. Read any chamber novel from the 18th or 19th century and you’re bound to find some plot point about an insidious uninvited guest crashing the family home. Back then, if another rich person turned up at your door, social etiquette more or less obliged you to let them stay and forbade you from evicting them when they had outlasted their welcome. The cartoonist Edward Gorey parodied this anachronism in his breakout storybook ‘The Uninvited Guest’ (it’s been twenty years since he came to stay, we cannot make him go away’). In the twentieth century these tropes persisted but an emergent trend was in the choice to portray these unsavoury houseguests as either gay or dubious social climbers or both.

Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr Ripley is an amour fou involving the eponymous conman killing and assuming his wealthy friend’s identity. As far as potboilers go, it’s an effective story and the psychological progression of the characters is believable enough (albeit somewhat hampered by a number of clichés about male psychology). Saltburn, however, dispenses with any rigorous characterisation in favour of silly didacticism. Highsmith’s Ripley may be monstrous but his behavior is often logical and even sympathetic. Barry Keoghan on the other hand is merely a metaphorical ‘vampire’. His sadism is understood by the author as mere appetite—a caricature of Thatcherism.

Another interesting point of comparison, virtually unmentioned by the presses, would be Pier Pasolini’s 1968 film, Teorema, in which a mysterious Lothario seduces the members of a bourgeois family one by one. The result is the same. A dynasty is destroyed by an intrusion into the world of corrupt bourgeois morality. Overall, it’s Pasolini’s most technically inept project, full of pretentious symbolic logic and dowdy eroticism. A far superior remake was released by Takashi Miike in 2004, called Visitor Q, which reimagines the story as a kind of slapstick comedy, a la Freddy Got Fingered.

A scene from Pasolini's TEOREMA in which a man screams after wandering the desert.
An absurd scene from Pasolini’s TEOREMA.

Pasolini got in trouble with a lot of homophobic detractors over Teorema. But in Saltburn there’s a strange inversion of the story’s moral imperative. Whereas Teorema exemplified hippyish countercultural attitudes towards sex, Saltburn is conversely prurient and Victorian. The audience is expected to flinch or recoil in horror from sex as it appears in the film. In fact, two of the of the most talked-about moments (and perhaps the film’s entire marketing raison d’etre) involve some Battaillian erotic perversions—first when Keoghan surreptitiously drinks ejaculate from Elordi’s bathwater and again later when he’s crywanking over Elordi’s grave. Neither of these moments are truly shocking unless placed in the context of a domesticated cinema audience. What if someone were to walk in on you watching a scene with male nudity?

If I was feeling uncharitable I would say that the film’s incoherence is a result of dilettantism. Tropes abound, bur the author doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. When the film moves to the centre of a giant hedge maze (because of course, all manors have hedge mazes) we are presented with none other than a big statue of (you guessed it) a minotaur. This sort of symbolism might flatter the audience but artistically it’s redundant. Is Barry supposed to be the minotaur in this simile, on top of already being a ‘spider‘ and a ‘moth?’ In reality, we’re not supposed to think about it too hard.

In fact, everything about this film is designed to soothe the conscience of middle class white liberal consumers. The French have a handy expression for this kind of cultural decadence which is referred to as part of a literary tradition called epater les bourgouis or ‘shock(ing) the middle classes’. The idea being that middle class people actually quite like, even crave, being shocked with the spectacle of unhealthy unnatural behavior because they actually find it reassuring. It’s the same thing Huysmans was parodying in his book A rebours in 1884, when symbolist poets could make a living manufacturing opium journals for an audience of gentile clerks and governesses.

If I was feeling particularly uncharitable and bitchy I would say there’s an undercurrent of homophobia in Saltburn that plays of the still existing fear of gay people as dubious characters without loyalty to class or family. They’re untrustworthy predators and groomers. If they’re not recruiting your children then they’re probably trying to steal your straight boyfriend. And they’re shallowly materialistic, with their taste for designer clothes and expensive lifestyles.

Ultimately we’re meant to savour the destruction of these decadent wealthy stereotypes, because that’s what this trend of ‘eat the rich‘ storytelling is all about. Obviously rich people suck because they usually exploit their way to success, or, if nothing else, serve as a living reminder of capitalist inequality. So it’s easy to hate rich people. But this isn’t really socialism. Industry hacks produce and promote and pour awards on stuff like Saltburn because it allows them to worship an economic model in which they are all portrayed as powerless victims of circumstance— trapped by privilege in the same way the underclasses are trapped by poverty and racism. There’s a dumb and obvious thrill in watching idiots get picked off by a slasher. But the film oozes sympathy for the landed gentry even as it lampoons them. They’re shown as being pathetic like children or animals, not truly responsible for themselves. Barry Keoghan’s character, by comparison, is almost impossible to write. As a compromise, the filmmakers settle on a kind of a gormless Jeffrey Dahmer stereotype.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder has a film called Wity, which, in a plot point seemingly borrowed from Pasolini’s Teorema, tells of a black slave who first seduces and then murders the members of a slave-holding family. Watching this unfold seems like a parody of Western alienation rather than its exemplification. Such revenge fantasies, Fassbinder seems to say, are just narrative devices whose endings are both arbitrary and culturally preconditioned. At the end of his Satansbrew, people die and come back to life, ludicrously for no reason. No mythology exists rational enough to resist appropriation by irrational tyranny. No virtue inimical to the lies of management.

Compare this to the sanctimony of Saltburn, which, for all its glossy cinematography and celebrity actors, is more obliviously surreal than any Fassbinder film and barely half as funny. Insult follows on from injury with the realization that whoever made this film was truly straining for some moral depth. Frightening, eh?

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