Dial M for Emerald Fennell.
The first British woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director has always had a penchant for the grotesque and murder. Season 2 of Killing Eve (2019), where she served as showrunner and head writer, her novel about murderous adolescents, Monsters (2015), as well as her feature debut Promising Young Woman (2020), all share themes of sometimes justified, sometimes thoroughly callous resentment, revenge, and killing.
Now, with her sophomore release, Saltburn, Fennell, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman, blows the lid off the psychological thriller genre to rattle the squeamish and astonish the rest.
To describe Saltburn as a sexed-up The Talented Mr. Ripley for millennials would be to reduce this aesthetically and symbolically complex film to a two-bit aphorism, but it’s a good start. Levitating between caustic satire, coming-of-age erotic drama, and thriller, Fennell’s latest is a richly carnal meditation on how and why to eat (out) the rich, pulling no punches and inviting us to let loose with the many beasts we meet throughout the 127-minute runtime.
Saltburn is a meticulously crafted effort that proudly showcases its many directorial and narrative influences, showering us with hypersaturated set pieces and at least three of the most bizarre(ly sexy) scenes ever seen on film. I could write a critique of each of these three scenes alone, but to say any more about them would be to spoil a supremely perverse experience. Just surrender yourself and worry about the implications later.
The Gossip Girl, Patricia Highsmith, Evelyn Waugh, Hitchcock (!), Pasolini (!!), and others come together in Saltburn, and surprisingly well. Fennell’s takes on class issues, cringe, laughs, and gore all work compellingly, but the cast truly carries this oddball extravaganza. Barry Keoghan, still fresh from his Academy award-nominated turn in Banshees of Inisherin is an unhinged powerhouse as the protagonist Oliver Quick; Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi is utterly dazzling as the nonchalant richboy Felix Catton, with Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant and Carey Mulligan stealing every scene they’re in as Felix’s surreally blase parents and their histrionic guest.
Saltburn begins with a seemingly poor, hopelessly uncool teenager, Oliver (Keoghan), getting into Oxford on a scholarship. His daily tedium has nothing of the raunchy pizazz or the casual opportunity for posh buffoonery that the ritzy kids’ enjoy at every turn. The top dog of this layer cake of the British high snobiety is Felix Catton (Elordi), a young aristocrat so far up the ladder that his family allegedly served as inspiration for “most Evelyn Waugh’s characters”. But Felix isn’t your average snotty jock sweating his legacy status; he is warm, exceedingly friendly, and potentially kind even. Couple that with a preposterously alluring physicality, and you’ve got yourself a boy everyone wants to fuck, marry, or kill.
Perhaps the inscrutable Oliver scores a hat trick here, longing for all three options. Or perhaps he desperately wants to escape his drab existence by endearing himself to Felix and his coterie, finally finding that one friend he’s never had. Either way, after a chance act of kindness on Oliver’s part, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, much to the chagrin of Felix’ swanky cronies. While a somewhat over-inflated, by-the-numbers tale of teenage loneliness and exclusionary politics works well enough to light the fuse, the crux of the story only reveals itself (and soars) after Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer with his family at their estate, Saltburn.
Sure enough, Saltburn is the most insanely grandiose estate you’ve ever seen (shot at the 18th-century estate Shotover Park). Somewhere between a “hideous Rubens” painting, a lake, and the morbidly watchful staff linger Elspeth and Sir James, Felix’s outrageously jaded parents, played to perfection by Pike and Grant. While Grant’s Sir James anxiously hovers around the estate like a specter on antipsychotics, Pike, an unsung comedic genius, is responsible for several of the funniest lines and deliveries in recent years. When Oliver tries to explain to Elspeth that he comes from a small town near Liverpool, she blankly muses, “Where’s Liverpool?”. “Um, up north,” offers Sir James cautiously in a most hilarious illustration of the wealthy family’s disjointedness with the real world, i.e., the working classes.
As Oliver endears himself to the Catton family, with Felix’ “sexually incontinent” sister, Venetia (a great Alison Oliver), and resentful cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, also in a fine turn) are at the heart of the intrigue, and things quickly go from farcical to downright nasty. The final act is a tongue-in-cheek escalation of several catastrophes that are curiously bookended by genuinely uproarious humor (“We don’t need your American feelings!”) and a pensive, introspective denouement in which some things in this story come together. What we leave with is either guilt over all that we covet or visceral elation. Likely both.
In the hands of a less skilled creative team, Saltburn could have become a lame The Talented Mr. Ripley rip-off or a vapid pastiche of pretty images and quirky one-liners. Instead, thanks to Fennell’s assured direction and the cast’s spectacular layering of emotions, both felt and performative, the result effectively depicts the desire for material wealth and the acute objectification of status. Spearheaded by Keoghan’s impenetrable modalities of affection, Saltburn is a venomous distillation of the material consequences of capitalist consumerism dragged through the dirt of British aristocratic traditions. Reducing the historicities of the class divide to deliberately banal punchlines, Fennell offers a thoroughly material, often erotic, bodily obsession with things and appearances, manifesting in every breath and move the many odd characters make.
The shockingly perverse scenes, especially, are a damn fine condensation of the erotic elation a bodily transgression against social etiquette can bring, a jouissance of sorts. Despite the humor, the box-office-friendly plot, and the millennial nostalgia in the form of a mid-noughts soundtrack (a massive shoutout to whoever thought of Ladytron) and dreadful Juicy couture sweatpants, Saltburn is essentially a political affair. It shows our Western civilization’s present tense as a perverse, anti-dialectical narrative in which any subl(im)ation of the master-slave dialectic fails miserably, as self-conscience is never achieved, perhaps not even attempted.
There’s much more to unpack here, but the analysis would necessitate a close reading of Saltburn‘s ending. What I can say is that Fennell’s brash political cynicism, in particular, hits the hardest, as she insists on a historical perpetuation of quasi-erotic fantasies of status and the impossibility of change, putting both up as an uncanny mirror to most of us in the audience.
If there are any criticisms to send Fennell’s way, they have to do with Saltburn‘s characters’ depth and their ideological motivations. While one could successfully argue that Pike and Grant are note-perfect precisely because idle aristocrats are, in fact, little more than caricatures of human beings, Keoghan’s Oliver and even Elordi’s Felix remain somewhat of a mystery up until the very end. None of this takes away from Saltburn‘s political core or the sheer enjoyability of the story, but those looking for a more psychologically substantial film might feel swindled by the surface flashiness.
Still, Saltburn looks and tastes better and more lavish than most sophomore efforts and firmly establishes Emerald Fennell as one of her generation’s most mischievously potent filmmakers. Whatever its potential perceived shortcomings, this is a smart film that sinks its teeth into you and doesn’t let up, leaving you elated and exhausted but wanting more, like a post-orgasmic haze.