Emerald Fennell’s 2023 film “Saltburn” is an aesthetically rich tale of wealth, status and manipulation. While entertaining and gorgeously shot, the film ultimately falls into the trap of devoting more attention to aesthetics than substance.
Cut to Oxford, early 2000s: A nerdy teen, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), proclaims in his freshman year tutorial that he has read all 50 of the suggested readings from the summer book list. His instructor is aghast. It’s hard to believe that Oliver has undertaken the feat, most likely because he hasn’t at all. “Saltburn” starts with a lie, the first of many throughout the film.
“Saltburn,” which draws inspiration from Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel “Brideshead Revisited,” begins amidst the chaos of orientation week at Oxford. The elite of Brasenose College socialize on the green by day and frequent pubs together by night. All the while, bookish Oliver quietly studies and passes the time with his socially inept acquaintance Michael (Ewan Mitchell). A tangible sense of privilege shrouds these early scenes of college life — the social and material excess of the in-crowd emerges in contrast to Oliver’s purported upbringing.
Oliver’s parents are said to be drug addicts, negligent and removed from their son’s life. It’s on these grounds that Oliver strikes up a relationship with Felix (Jacob Elordi), a handsome aristocrat and fellow classmate. Oliver kindly lends his bicycle to Felix one day when Felix gets a flat tire on his way to class. They strike up a friendship shortly thereafter and become a quirky duo. It quickly becomes clear that the friendship provides Felix with an antidote to his bourgeois guilt.
Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer with his family at Saltburn, their Versailles-esque estate in the English countryside. The mansion is as pompous as Felix’s family: Rows upon rows of portraits hang, rich sunlight seeps through velvet curtains and an elaborate hedge maze is squarely placed in the backyard’s center. Saltburn’s eccentric inhabitants, Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), Venetia (Alison Oliver) and fellow Oxford classmate Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) accept Oliver into their home with some degree of pity. His presence is an invitation for them to feel less guilty about their decadent lifestyle. He provides a real-world depth that lies in contrast to their surface-level existence.
Before long, Oliver’s stay at Saltburn becomes complicated by personal truths brought to light. His bond with Felix is found to stand on a foundation of lies, compromising their friendship and putting Oliver’s tenure at Saltburn in jeopardy. The second half of the film takes an unexpected course, tracing the breakdown of the family spurred by Oliver’s deceit.
Trailers for the film left room for audiences to interpret the extent to which “Saltburn” can be considered a queer film. While the dynamic between Oliver and Felix is not explicitly queer, with their relationship failing to ever culminate in a romance, the film’s treatment of desire gestures toward the presence of a quieter form of queerness at work.
“This is a film entirely about desire, and that desire takes every conceivable manifestation,” according to Fennell. Characters in the film not only desire each other but also a decadent lifestyle.
This aforementioned desire is manifested through sex, although sex itself is often presented as a means to an end within the film. Pleasure isn’t a sexual catalyst in “Saltburn” — a desire for power is. Sex is conceivably a means through which those at Saltburn can assume power over others. For example, when Felix’s sister Venetia seduces Oliver in the garden outside of his window one night, Oliver takes it as an opportunity to establish psychological control. Oliver similarly uses sex in the film’s later half to establish power over Felix’s cousin Farleigh before he is forced off of the estate.
It is clear that Oliver desires Saltburn’s decadence more than he desires those around him — as an aesthete, sex is indeed utilitarian. The overbearing presence of bodily fluids in the film — blood, vomit, spit and semen — further contributes to the film’s characterization of sex as brutish and strategic. It’s the means through which Oliver is able to continue crafting his web of deception.
An aspect ratio of 1.33:1 presents the film in a narrow frame — similar to looking at a painting. The unique aspect ratio yields the sensation of peering in, too. We, like Oliver, are outsiders meant to observe the cinematic beauty and peculiar characters of Saltburn from a removed perspective.
While the film is thoroughly entertaining, its downfall lies in Fennell’s tendency to spell out the narrative. Though a tangible sense of tension builds throughout the film, it doesn’t really amount to anything. Fennell holds our hand through the film’s climax, painstakingly explaining each development and linking events that need not be linked — leading the built-up tension to deflate like a balloon.
“Saltburn,” with its ambitious focus, ultimately bites off more than it can chew. The film simultaneously attempts to explore Felix’s relationship with Oliver, serve as a class commentary and probe the mind of a compulsive liar. But all of these subjects are only partially explored, none are investigated to fruition.
“Saltburn” possesses considerable similarity to the social-satire films that have recently dominated festivals. Class commentaries have established themselves as a trendy genre; in order to stand out, new films of the genre need to present a fresh perspective. “Saltburn” is, unfortunately, a bit derivative. It doesn’t possess a unique perspective, making it indistinguishable from other works — “Triangle of Sadness,” “Knives Out” and “The Menu” — released in recent years.
“Saltburn” is most notable for its aesthetic, though the film’s narrative unfortunately lacks uniqueness and mistreats suspense. It is a thoroughly entertaining watch, but it's not something that will stay on this reviewer’s radar forever.