Disturbing, twisted and grotesquely fun are words one might muster in an attempt to describe Emerald Fennell’s psychological, black comedy Saltburn. However, a sense of speechlessness is probably a more fitting reaction to the film, as when I watched the film last week, I like many other moviegoers welcomed the ending credits in a state of bewilderment and nervous laughter.
After the initial stunned silence I experienced after the movie, it then became almost impossible to talk of anything else for the evening. Saltburn is a film that demands conversation and perhaps a bit of controversy. It is an ode to film in its rawest form, serving to provoke and entertain.
Yet, as Saltburn begins to grace the award show nominations, with both Rosamund Pike and Barry Keogan earning nods from the Golden Globes for their standout performances, the discourse surrounding the film is only growing. But, the question begs, what is Saltburn really about? Viewers can agree that the film is anything but boring and riotously provocative as it gorges on the gothic genre, but does it possess any clear or powerful message?
Saltburn is a movie that is certainly interested in class. The plot follows wealthy and popular Felix (Jacob Elordi) as he befriends or rather takes pity on working-class Oliver (Barry Keogan), inviting him to spend a summer on his country estate. Class exists everywhere in the film, in the student halls in Oxford, where our protagonist struggles to integrate into a cohort where everyone is seemingly already acquainted through family friends or the elite private school network. It travels through to the walls of the grand Saltburn estate, as Fennell depicts a world of vast wealth, extravagant parties, friends on the board at Sotheby’s and suit jackets for dinner. Saltburn chronicles the takedown of an archaic, yet as this film reminds us, glaringly real British class structure. However, as Saltburn tends to favour shock over substance, it can sometimes feel as if the film desires to be seen as a powerful exploration of class, failing at times to really pull it off.
The Catton’s estate is filled with grand stairways, endless antiques and paintings; a house so vast and full of treasures it is as disorientating as the maze in its gardens. The Saltburn estate is a type of wealth that is almost mythical, as it epitomises the grandeur of the old English aristocracy. The estate speaks for itself, it houses a family so assured of their own status that they own a shabby TV and opt for swimming in a pond rather than a pool. In a movie that plays with mystery, perhaps the biggest one is how the Catton estate has avoided becoming a part of the National Trust.
The film does mock the upper-class family and their fates are left hollow and tragic by the film’s conclusion. Upon Oliver’s arrival at the estate, the family marvel at his exotic upbringing as Carey Mulligan’s character Pamela asks “Where is Liverpool?” We soon discover that an Oxbridge education does not cover the location of one of the country’s biggest cities, as Fennell exposes the snobbishness and supremacy of the family. Just like Oliver at university, the Cattons are outsiders from the rest of modern Britain, yet theirs is an isolation that marks them as elite and untouchable. Their ignorance of UK geography is harmless, this is a family that need not concern themselves with life outside the gates of Saltburn.
Felix and later the women in his family take quickly to Oliver despite his little contributions in conversation or entertainment. They are charmed by his working-class background and his tales of a woeful childhood with alcoholic parents, out of an equal sense of pity and fascination. As Felix’s sultry sister Venetia, played by Alison Oliver, flirts with Oliver she tells him, “You’re so… real.” A half insult, half compliment, Venitia’s line is an eye-rolling moment of upper-class attraction with this sense of working-class authenticity.
Fennell’s satire never feels too vicious though, as the film sometimes tends to glamourise the very core of what it intends to attack. The cinematography glides over the purple-hued Oxford sunsets and the sprawling gardens with a fervent longing. Saltburn is one of the most sexually charged films of this year, yet the real seduction is not expressed in Oliver’s carnal desire, the bathwater or even the sweat dripping down heartthrob Elordi’s back. The sexiest thing about Saltburn is without a doubt the house itself.
There lies the internal conundrum of Saltburn’s message about class. On the one hand, it is a literal ‘eat the rich’ triumph, as Machiavellian Oliver consumes the Catton’s wealth and estate. On the other hand, the film glamourises the upper-class lifestyle, with their fabulous parties and fashion. The film mocks the family’s ignorance and their silly rules, but is this mocking not affectionate?
The most refreshing exploration of class takes place in the movie’s first act, at Oxford University. A graduate of the university herself, Fennell explores the classist structures existing in many of the UK’s poshest unis, whether it be Oxbridge, St Andrews or Exeter. We watch Oliver as he finds himself searching for a space at dinner or getting painfully teased for his clothes. In a tutorial scene, Oliver struggles to capture the attention of his professor despite his clear talent and preparation for his subject. His professor is more interested in his privileged classmate Farleigh, who although late and unfocussed, has a key advantage over Oliver when the professor recalls with affection knowing his mother. It is a harsh reality thrust upon our protagonist, that merit is not the main currency in this world, but it is all about who you know.
Whilst the cinematography flatters Oxford, the university might be less happy with its depiction as an institution that is rather unwelcoming to less privileged students. State school admissions into Oxbridge have of course increased since 2006, with Oxford reporting a 7.6% increase between 2018 to 2022 alone. The sneering comments about Oliver’s rental tux might represent a blatant classism that might seem over-exaggerated in its scale. However, almost anyone who has been to a typically posh university will be full of tales that show such issues are still glaringly present. As a Durham graduate myself, I empathised with Oliver’s slow realisation that not everyone was starting freshers week on the same level footing, greeting old friends from Eton or their ski season gap years.
If Fennell deserves any praise for her portrayal of class, then she achieves it in the first act of the film. As we enter the gates of the Saltburn estate it becomes difficult for the film to not yearn for the Catton’s lifestyle, despite how empty and hollow it becomes. For a film that is all about class, it seems hesitant to say anything conclusive about it. Yet, is this ambiguity part of the appeal of Saltburn? The film is deliciously divisive, with its most powerful message simply being its refusal to give a clear one at all.
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