Saltburn, Emerald Fennell

Men Are So Lovely and Dry: Saltburn’s Queer Narrative Failures

Saltburn sparked discussion for its shocking sex scenes, but for all its stylized images and clever gendered trope inversions, its queer promises are empty.

Emerald Fennell
Amazon MGM
14 November 2023 (US)

Following its streaming premiere on Amazon Prime in late 2023, Emerald Fennell‘s sophomore feature Saltburn became the subject of much debate and a wild amount of memes. Many praise the tale of the moody loner Oliver (Barry Keoghan), who endears himself to manic pixie dream boy Felix (Jacob Elordi) and his rich family as a perfect eat-the-rich vendetta. Oliver worms his way into high society’s favor, using everyone’s sexuality and sympathy against themselves to advance his status.

The film is explicit, rude, and dark, perfectly aligning with Fennell’s 2020 feature Promising Young Woman, which shares Saltburn‘s same philosophical endpoint: that people are inherently selfish and evil, often beyond the point of redemption. Apologies may be accepted in her films, but there is no forgiveness in her cinematic worldview.

[Spoilers ahead.] During Saltburn‘s rollout, its splashy trailers and gorgeous visuals set it up to be something akin to a budding queer romance not unlike Luca Guadagnino’s landmark 2017 drama Call Me By Your Name, albeit perhaps with a touch more sleaze. While there are hints of romance and sincere themes of sexual obsession at play, Saltburn does itself a disservice with its final act, which overexplains the nature of its protagonist and thus flattens what was otherwise a meaningful character study. Indeed, Saltburn commits one of the largest acts of narrative self-sabotage in recent cinematic history, thereby making the original point stand: the story should’ve ended after Oliver has sex with Felix’s grave.

Saltburn begins with Oliver (sometimes just “Oli”) finding his place as a new student at Oxford despite growing up an average middle-class social outcast whose only “friend” is an annoying fellow outcast who has latched on to him. He notices that Felix is the handsome, popular kid, and there’s a seemingly chance encounter wherein Oliver loans Felix his bike so that he can get to class on time. Impressed by Oliver’s generosity, a budding friendship forms, with Felix looping Oliver into his popular-kid social circles.

They make new memories and share their struggles, with Oliver confessing that he has little remorse when he gets news that his abusive father has passed away. This leads Felix to invite his down-on-his-luck friend to Saltburn, his family’s aging upper-crust estate, for the summer. Felix goes out of his way to ensure Oliver has a nice suit to wear at their perpetual formalwear dinners. Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) tells Oliver he’s just another new toy for Felix to play with, albeit one that’s more “real” than the boys of summer past.

Saltburn‘s Act I is a herring of the deepest hue of red. This film is loosely about friendship, but its true theme is obsession with class and stature and sex and power. In one of Saltburn‘s most hotly debated scenes, Oli watches from a cracked door as Felix masturbates in the tub of their shared bathroom, with the camera lingering over all of Felix’s sweaty pores. Once he departs to bed, Oli gets in the bathtub and licks what is left of the bathwater, ingesting Felix’s ejaculate lustfully.

While Felix has frequently been the unknowing subject of Oli’s gaze multiple times, Oli attempts to have sex with one of Felix’s female companions at Oxford and later on has a striking scene where he pursues sister Venetia and engages with her orally even while she’s on her period. He has become a frightening sexual aggressor despite lapping up Felix’s leftovers just a few scenes prior. At Saltburn‘s midpoint, Oliver’s sexuality, while threatening in scope and severity, still intrigues as it seemingly has no limits. Oli is a richly drawn character who is obsessed with many people and many things. He’s a peculiar omnivore of the senses.

After applying a forceful handjob to try and silence Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Oli’s largest critic within Felix’s circle, Oli’s personal narrative of growing up in squalor and making the best of his life is undone by Felix’s surprise visit to see Oli’s mom, no doubt still mourning the loss of her husband. Instead, Felix meets Oli’s well-adjusted middle-class mom and dad and soon realizes everything Oli has told him is a lie. Felix tells Oli to leave Saltburn after the massive birthday soiree his parents hold for Oli at the estate.

During the party, Oli interrupts Felix having sex with a woman in the middle of the Saltburn hedge maze. Felix rejects Oli’s advances, only to be found dead in the morning. After the funeral, a mournful Oliver starts crying at Felix’s grave. Rapidly, Oli collapses onto it, disrobes, and starts having sex with the mound of dirt while sobbing. It is a striking scene at a point in Saltburn‘s story when we are unsure of how Felix passed, what Oliver’s future holds with Felix’s family, and what Oliver’s ultimate endgame is. For even with Felix dead, Oli remains at Saltburn.

Since the film’s release, its most vocal critics have cited Saltburn‘s explicit sex scenes as excessive, provocative, and existing solely for the sake of shock value. Indeed, Oli is at the center of every sex scene, and it becomes clear over time that Oli is less bisexual or even pansexual, more a pure opportunist who weaponizes sex and desire for his own means. We begin to understand that Oli’s goal is wealth and self-preservation. Only Felix’s sister Venetia recognizes Oli’s malicious intentions. Farleigh has a hunch, but by the point he tries expressing it, it’s too late: Oli’s presence in Felix’s family is too deeply entrenched to extract him.

Oli’s obsessions with the family take root; before long, his presence is everywhere. There’s a reason that when Oli confronts Felix in the center of the Saltburn hedge maze, the large minotaur statue created by the production team is modeled on Barry Keoghan’s physique.

Yet Saltburn‘s most glaring problems occur following Felix’s funeral. Felix’s mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), becomes increasingly attached to Oli. Her husband, James (Richard E. Grant), writes Oli an exorbitant check to leave the grounds and extract himself from their family. Oli initially refuses to do so but finally relents. Years later, he encounters Elspeth at a coffee shop shortly after James’ passing. Elspeth’s needy nature requires company, and Oli is once again back on the Saltburn estate, tending to Elspeth when she falls mysteriously ill. The family fortune is then bequeathed to Oli, and he kills her while she lay in bed. Saltburn ends with Keoghan memorably dancing naked through the mansion to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor“.

The problem with this pivot and the entire post-funeral portion of Saltburn is that Fennell is compelled to explain Oli’s every single action. In a montage worthy of a James Bond villain reveal, Oli has orchestrated every event that has happened throughout his interaction with Felix’s family, from putting a tack in Felix’s bike tire to typing gibberish on a laptop during the “chance” coffee shop encounter he has with the newly-widowed Elspeth. Any nuance that could be found in Oli’s actions prior to this point is reduced to psychopathic intent. His unknowable obsessions become singular. The context of all the sex scenes is inverted from shock and titillation to pure malice. Any queer reading of the character of Oli is reduced to a single self-preserving intention, flattening his arc and, by its nature, the rest of the film.

There is no cinematic rulebook that says queer characters must be aligned with any specific moral compass, but because Felix is rendered as the gender-flipped manic pixie dream girl trope, the interplay between Felix and Oli is by its definition romantic. This is by design: the boxy framing, the washed-out color tones, the lingering shots of body parts, and wry glances convey a deliberate performance, a gradual buildup, and then, a sudden betrayal where Oli’s obsession and veneer of romance are suddenly stripped away.

After Oli’s villainous nature is revealed to the audience, a gigantic emotional plothole reveals itself: why the bathtub scene? Despite calculating his every action in Saltburn, the scene of him obsessing over Felix as he pleasures himself and then giving in to his carnal instincts with the bath drain plays at a larger theme. It could be romantic, it could be sexual, it could simply be Oliver wanting to be Felix and, in the moment, debasing himself and trying quite literally to obtain his essence. It’s possible to interpret the scene as simply a moment of weakness, as not everything goes Oli’s way as he conceives his self-pitying masterplan, but for all its teases, promises, menace, and hollow gestures, Oli’s primal nature belies the compact narrative Fennell tries to send him off within the final act. She wants Oli to be seen as the psychopath he is, but in this one moment, Oli is confused, perhaps curious, but still compelling.

Other critics have also called out Saltburn for its “dull” queer panto, specifically with Abby Montei’s venomous pummeling of the film’s themes via “The Beautiful, Hollow Queerness of Saltburn” for Them Magazine in November 2023. The only take on this subject I’ve seen that makes the most cohesive sense is, if viewed solely through the eat-the-rich lens from the perspective of the well-to-do, that Saltburn is a horror movie where Oli is the lower-class rat that feasts on the wealthy’s good graces to the point of claiming it all for himself. In this interpretation, the bathtub scene carries a bit more weight as it posits Oli as someone desperately wanting to become a member of the ruling class by any means necessary, thereby giving terrifying agency to his sexual advances.

Interviews with Fennell more explicitly point out Saltburn‘s queer undertones, thus negating the “rich family nightmare” interpretation, and while the film’s many scenes avail it to a variety of possible motives and meanings, the steamy trailers and inversion of tropes leave some queer viewers feeling betrayed. Saltburn had the potential to convey something of importance, to portray sexualized queer characters as multi-dimensional, even if they aren’t palpable. Instead, it aligns with Fennell’s vision the queer character is a one-note long-game killer.

For this reason, I go back to the notion of ending Saltburn with the scene where Oli has sex with Felix’s grave plot. It’s a long, uninterrupted shot, and watching Oli cry as he humps the fresh dirt atop his dead friend speaks to a truly disturbing connection to Felix that was significant even after Felix rejected his advances. It colors Oli’s intentions as more than just encasing himself in the family’s wealth. Ending with this scene would show how Olie lost whatever remnants of humanity he had with Felix’s passing.

Had Saltburn ended here, we wouldn’t have discovered that Oli poisoned the wine that killed Felix, nor that he staged all the scenes that set up their college friendship. There would be debate as to what or who killed Felix and what Oli’s ultimate intentions were with the family. His sexuality would be up for intense dissection. Even without staging the bike exchange or the scene where Oli said he didn’t have enough money to buy shots for Felix’s friends, the reveal that Oli’s father wasn’t dead and it was a lie he told to Felix’s family would be enough to cast doubt on Oli’s actions without a montage explicitly spelling out his vile deeds. With this alternative ending, he’s still with Felix’s clan and attends the funeral, and his future with them is likely entrenched. Yet Fennell continues the story after the grave scene, and Oli’s arc goes from mysterious to cruel, denying the audience any other interpretation of his behavior.

We remain lucky that we live at a time when there is a wide display of genuinely good queer media still being aired, with recent prestige shows and movies like Ron Nyswaner’s mini-series Fellow Travellers and Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers telling queer stories that are meshed with history and nuance. Even Emma Seligman’s comedy Bottoms made no bones about its queer themes as nearly every character comes off as slightly deranged (to wondrous effect), leaving the almost-promises of Saltburn that much more transparent.

Yet great art isn’t designed with the sole intention of satisfying, and as problematic as Saltburn‘s query story inherently is, it has inspired more debate than any of the other major awards-season players that 2023 had to offer. Saltburn will be studied and debated for years to come, but my single hope is that everyone comes around to the notion that the film should’ve ended with the grave-humping.