Saltburn: Throwing Genres on the Wall To See What Sticks
The controversy surrounding Saltburn makes the film’s messaging much more convoluted than it is—the film’s overabundance of themes is its true impediment.
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In the late summer of 2023, the trailer was released for British director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film Saltburn, which came just three years after her controversial rape-revenge thriller Promising Young Woman (2020). The trailer for Saltburn revealed a film that seemed perfectly crafted for Gen Z’s rapid content assembly line: the love story of the impoverished Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) and the ultra-wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). But beyond the romance, it’s also a film about class warfare, while simultaneously being a dark comedy, satire, thriller, and coming-of-age tale. Saltburn has its moments of camp and fun, but its success is ultimately impeded by the straining number of genres and themes it tries to incorporate.
“Eat the rich” is a phrase familiar to pop culture; from Netflix’s hit series Squid Game (2021) to the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019), class disparity is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser in the entertainment industry. The film begins with a monologue: Oliver recounts his summer-long stay at Saltburn Mansion, the home of his college friend Felix’s family, who pitied Oliver after hearing his tragic backstory of his absentee parents and poverty. On the surface, extending the invitation to stay at Saltburn seems generous. However, the audience soon learns the venomous nature of the Cattons’ intentions. They are (metaphorically) vampiric, fetishizing lower-class misfortune and seeking the second-hand thrill of the troubles of those who are less fortunate than them.
Saltburn’s rich characters aren’t outwardly malicious, like the VIPs in Squid Games, or caricatures of wealth, like the socialites in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)—Fennell manages to create a midpoint between these archetypes, allowing for the complex layers and emotions of class warfare to act as a thematic red herring that other topics are explored beneath. Oliver’s burning obsession (that twists into voyeurism) is an amplified aspect of class warfare that contributes to his intriguing anti-heroism throughout the film. The intrigue of these themes is aided by the phenomenal performances of the cast, especially Pike in her role as Elspeth Catton, the estate’s out-of-touch matriarch, and Keoghan, who skillfully conveys the intense envy hiding underneath Oliver’s subtly shifting expressions.
Keoghan’s performance is aided by the film’s proclivity for close-up shots of his face, which highlight the nuance of his expressions. Emphasizing Keoghan’s emotional response to different scenes could be the reason for the film’s particularly small aspect ratio, but this is also where Fennell seems to run herself into a wall. Though the aspect ratio emphasizes the intensity that closely ties the film to the thriller genre, it’s at odds with the indie teen slow-burn that the film starts off as. In some moments, the intended grandeur of the Saltburn Mansion and liveliness of the outdoors is stifled by this creative decision. It would have been much more captivating if the aspect ratio began to close in during a turning point of the film to signify that the thriller of Saltburn had begun and the romantic side had ended. These confusing decisions make the movie feel like it’s trying too hard to be the artsy indie film that it isn’t.
Though some creative decisions are unsuccessful, the film does have meaningful production aspects: the alluringly warm lighting from the constant golden hour perfectly captures the mood. The streams of gold represent Oliver’s deification of upper-class life, illuminating characters, such as Felix, in a godly light. The halo-like radiance of certain characters causes others to lurk in the shadows by comparison—the costuming works in tandem with this detail to further accentuate the differences between them. For instance, the venerated Felix wears white, breathable button-ups that scream of quiet luxury and old money, while the covetous Oliver sports deep-toned, heavy sweaters. These facets are well-thought-out and add rewatch value, but fail to redeem the strange film ratio.
Despite the varying success of the film’s creative risk-taking, most of the criticism it has faced targets the ample sexually graphic scenes that make audiences squirm in their seats; some critics say these scenes are unnecessary and are only included for shock value. The film uses the audience’s imagination to its advantage, insinuating that the explicit nature of the film’s most jarring scenes extends beyond what the audience sees play out on screen. In the infamous bathtub scene, Oliver leans over the tub after Felix has finished bathing (and masturbating), placing his face directly by the draining hole, and begins to tongue the water as it disappears. As uncomfortable as the scene was, the close-up shots and quick cuts prevented it from being directly explicit. Fennell employs this same strategy in other scenes, such as when Oliver simulates sex with a grave during a character’s funeral. The shot is far and dark enough to not expose any nudity, but the audience still understands the scene’s significance and intention. These scenes are integral to the movie’s true themes of voyeurism and obsession. Though removing them from the film might make audiences more comfortable, the sheer discomfort they evoke is intended to grab the audience’s attention and force them to confront the darker thematic material, which is especially important in a film that juggles so many plots.
The film ends with Oliver dancing nude through the mansion to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” (2001)—an early ‘00s song whose music video depicts a woman silently killing her competition—a thematically relevant wink alluding to the film’s climax. It’s one of many moments of ridiculousness peppered throughout the film that makes its convoluted messaging bearable. Though Saltburn’s overambition in covering a wide array of themes prevented it from reaching its full potential, most of its criticisms dismiss the themes that Saltburn explores well—and though much of its criticism is deserved, the ignorance of its deeper thematic concepts comes across as snotty rather than as a substantive analysis.