Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023)

A stylzed shot from Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn", depicting candles, mirrors, and a reflected face.

What’s there to say about Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn? On the one hand, it is a very attractive movie, full of attractive people, aimed towards the sort of moviegoers who spend a lot of time on Letterboxd and gorge on A24 films. This is not an A24 film, but the studio who produced Saltburn, LuckyChap Entertainment (also responsible for the billion-dollar-grossing Barbie), certainly knows of the audience overlap between them, and knows even better the sorts of aesthetics best displayed to trap their gaze. Aesthetics, as well as thematics: a little something about class, here, and a smattering of queerness, there. Best of all, it knows how to create “conversation,” and how to mix into that hodge-podge of thematic currency a dash of sensationalism: “Wait, he did what to the bathwater? Goodness me.” These are not novel strategies, by any means, but they are strategies, nonetheless; strategies which today’s studios will happily utilize in their bid for cultural clout.

On the other hand, this is a movie about a conniving murderous pervert, whose chosen prey falls easily to the most blatant manipulations only because they are written to be rich and gullible (richly gullible?) dimwits. The audience is clued into his manipulations pretty early on, which is not an unwise decision, but the trick after that is to surprise the audience with, perhaps, the cleverness of the manipulator’s tactics, and how deftly he might weave his trap around the glamorous inhabitants of the estate.

But no, the manipulator, Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick, isn’t very clever: he just lies to the Catton clan’s faces, who are, of course, too self-obsessed and conflict-averse to really question what’s occurring. To be fair, what’s occurring might not really be worth their closer attention, as it’s all fairly banal, and all for the purpose of Oliver to worm deeper into the family’s good graces.

I don’t think it’s even worth foregoing plot details in order to entice a potential viewer into seeing it all play out. This is not in the same stratosphere as, for example, The Draughtsman’s Contract, where it would truly reward a viewer to know less from the outset. Basically, Oliver is a resentful, sociopathic freak who lies about a difficult, lower-class upbringing so that he might befriend Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a classmate of his at Oxford who is both enormously wealthy (his family owns a lavish country estate called Saltburn, and his father’s got a “Sir” affixed to his name) and enormously popular. He’s the type of person who has it all: good looks, tons of money, and is easy-going and genuinely charming enough to allay some of the more toxic side-effects of such a heritage. Everybody either wants him or wants to be him, etc.

Well, Oliver simultaneously wants Felix and wants to be Felix, but because Felix is rich and vapid, and because his family has not worked a day in their lives to earn what they have, they must all be destroyed, supplanted, and replaced. Whatever class critique (I’m being generous even bringing the term in) there might be is complicated in the twist over halfway into the film, where Felix discovers that Oliver actually comes from a well-to-do middle-class family, with perfectly normal parents and not the deadbeat alcoholics he’d made them out to be to win Felix’s sympathies and have the wealthy young man invite him over to stay at Saltburn after Oliver’s father “dies.”

Having unearthed such gross deception, Felix, if he were a rational, common-sensical person—and at this point there is no glaring indication that he is not—would jettison Oliver from his life by banishing him from Saltburn and ceasing all contact. But because doing so might harsh the vibe with the family, Felix deigns to keep him on until the big birthday bash his parents planned for Oliver is over—thus spelling his own, and his family’s, doom.

If this moment does not make it clear to the viewer that what’s paramount to Fennell is not the consequences of understandable decisions made by recognizably full human characters but the luridness of her (via Oliver) plot designs, then I don’t know what to say. Before this, in one of the first scenes to showcase that the man is not who he pretends to be, Oliver gets with Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix’s sister, by munching on her vagina during her time of the month after she comes onto him outside the estate—he moans “Lucky for you, I’m a vampire,” complete with blood-drenched lips, and yes, this issued from the pen of a lauded up-and-coming independent filmmaker and not, say, Jennifer Armentrout.

I want to say there’s more to the movie than this, but I’m not sure there is. Apart from the infamous bathtub scene, there is another scene where Oliver fucks Felix’s grave. Yes, you heard that right: he crawls atop the freshly turned soil of his classmate’s resting place and sobs heavily before disrobing and thrusting himself continuously into the earth. To be completely fair to Fennell, this inspired choice was reportedly an improvisation on Barry Keoghan’s part—still, she witnessed this and, apparently, approved. Now, look, before I’m accused of being a party-pooper, I know perfectly well that not everything has to be high art, and there is undoubtedly a certain appeal to gonzo, kitschy material, but it’s not like Saltburn doesn’t take itself seriously. It does, but in a sly sort of way, by not taking itself too seriously, kind of like how certain writers (I’m thinking of poets, in particular, but this has infected other mediums) deliberately write all in lower-case, drawing more attention to themselves by minimizing their importance.

There is even a tongue-in-cheek dance sequence at the very end, with Oliver prancing about Saltburn in the nude, and please for the love of God, haven’t we seen a thousand scenes like this in films/television of the recent past? And the 4:3 aspect ratio, with 35mm graininess to boot, will surely have cinephiles oohing and aahing at the artsy feel of the visuals. That there does seem to be a dichotomy being gestured to (beauty/ugliness, symmetry/asymmetry) and somewhat played with, as well, means Fennell cannot be absolved of critique because it’s simply “all in good fun” or “just a wild ride” or whatever its more laissez-faire supporters might counter. There is laughter to be had, for sure; some of it coming from shock value, but some also from unintentionally hilarious moments like the keyboard-mash shown in the “dramatic” reveal of Oliver’s many deceptions. (The reveal is decidedly not as dramatic as it intends because Oliver’s maliciousness has already been revealed long before, and the viewer who’s been paying attention can already infer his part in the murders/apparent coincidences that have taken place. As a result, the montage accompanied by intense, sweeping music comes across as overkill.)

Thankfully, I don’t seem to be a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. The critical consensus from professionals and casual audiences alike seems to be pretty much in agreement, and some of it tacitly so, particularly from the laissez-faire types saying everyone else is taking themselves too seriously. Was I not entertained? Do I not find Saltburn very watchable? Yes, I was, and yes, I do, but perhaps we are to expect more from lauded up-and-coming independent filmmakers—don’t we get enough aesthetically appealing junk as it is?

Other positives? Well, again, it’s a fun watch, for the most part, if you can manage to keep your critical lenses off for two hours. The acting is uniformly decent, although it is disappointing to see the skills of clearly talented performers be directed towards cheap laughs and thrills.

Anyway, instead of watching Saltburn (but go ahead, if you must) I’d easily recommend in its place the aforementioned The Draughtsman’s Contract, by Peter Greenaway, which is also about skullduggery taking place in a country estate, but with stronger visual panache and wittier dialogue. Perhaps even more fittingly, I’d recommend the 1981 British ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, a work that Saltburn clearly (and self-admittedly) takes major inspiration from. It’s somewhat of a long haul, but you expect that from a miniseries; on the whole, though, it’s worth a watch, and the measured exploration of its characters and times will no doubt act as a palliative after the sordid romp of Saltburn.

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More from Ezekiel Yu: Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996), Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)Some Stuff to Say: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973)

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