In the types of stories where the main character focus is split between the semi-protagonist beautiful muse and the semi-antagonist starstruck wallflower, I think of the quote from The Talented Mr. Ripley*: “It’s like the sun shines on you, and it’s glorious. And then he forgets you and it’s very, very cold.” It’s the expectation of that idol/fan relationship that propels Emerald Fennell’s second directorial effort, Saltburn. The bookish Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) introduces the film by grappling with his feelings toward the charming Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) — “I love him, but was I in love with him?” — set to a montage of Felix that a Brontë sister would have published as a fan video on YouTube. With that quote in mind, Fennell sets out to bring it again to the screen, remixed and regurgitated for a new generation. Saltburn is indeed glorious and cold, and when the sun finally shines into the dark interior of the wickedness, I’m not sure if it’s something I wish to remember or forget.
Both freshmen at Oxford, Oliver is drawn to Felix’s natural magnetism and upper-class status, but is unable to penetrate his social circle, which includes Felix’s longtime, acidic-tongued cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). One day, Oliver finds Felix with a deflated bicycle tire and offers his own bike so that Felix can get to class on time. Grateful for the act of service, Felix then welcomes Oliver into gatherings at the bar and engages in deep conversations about their families. Expecting the Jude Law cold shoulder and the Matt Damon descent into despair, I held my breath for the inevitable.
Though the film falls into familiar footsteps, Saltburn takes its time getting there. Felix places some distance when Oliver admonishes him for an untidy room in the last weeks of their school semester, but shows empathy when Oliver shares news of his father’s sudden passing. With an unreliable alcoholic as a mother and nowhere to go after the school year, Oliver is invited to Saltburn, Felix’s home estate, for the summer. Despite the pearl-clutching atrocities that are to come, which take over any intended message of substance, Saltburn‘s appeal relies on Fennell’s specific direction on how she wants it to look and feel. The mansion, injected with fascination over ancient mythology and royalty lineage (evidence of the King Henrys’ presence are mentioned a few times), holds a menacing protection for the secrets and schemes to hide underneath. The stunning exhibitions of a large frondy pond and a maze labyrinth on their property makes me want to half-kiddingly suggest a double feature with this and The Holdovers, whose breathtaking display of New England snow might give a little more understanding and leeway to the main character who keeps insisting on a road trip to Boston.
But abandoned boys overtaken by scenery are where the similarities end. Admittedly, I thought I had known what Saltburn would have to offer and would have detested the predictability. But when I begin to write about the things that happen in the movie that are noteworthy but technically awful on paper, I’m not sure if I could really do it justice.
And does Saltburn, which is most likely not a good movie, deserve justice? It is batshit on the worse end of the stick. Fennell somewhat surprises and succumbs to casting; Elordi’s character might seem like the shifty rich boy to keep an eye on, but it’s Barry Keoghan who harvests the stressful, destructive nature of his characters from The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Green Knight for an unforgettable infliction. We find most of the intended comic relief in Rosamund Pike’s Elsbeth, Felix’s mother who rambles off observations untouched by reality and shielded by elitism. Within the sea of “eat the rich” films, you might be surprised when you start to feel bad for the Catton family (also composed of Felix’s sister Venetia, played by Alison Oliver, and his father James, played by Richard E. Grant) as the layers peel away to reveal a sort of dumb-money sweetness that might have thrived as its own story. Outside of Elsbeth’s lines, levity has to be exercised to enjoy the objectively terrible scenes involving bodily fluids and the misguided use of sexual prowess (though it does surpass Fair Play in erotic-thriller qualifications). If you choose to watch this with anyone else, keep in mind that one person’s outrageous laughter will set the tone over a chorus of groans.
With all of that being said, I kinda sorta get the vision. Without trying to put myself wholly into the mix, I bet that given the talent, time, and money and minus the scenes that I was a little embarrassed to watch head-on, Saltburn is the kind of film that I would have wanted to make when I was younger. It takes place in 2006 and screams that time period out loud. Arcade Fire and Bloc Party occupy in the background music of parties that Oliver meanders around, which feels like the kind of music that a lonely teenager would listen to in their bedroom when they’re imagining the lucky happenstance of meeting someone and knowing when life begins. The promotional shot of a shirtless Felix smoking in front of a window happens in the film, along with other poster-boy positions that staples an eyebrow-pierced Felix as a dreamboat swept by the trends of that time period (peep the LIVESTRONG wristband), specifically cultivated in a way that seems to come from one’s own imagining of romancing rich boys. I don’t imagine that my high school experience overlaps greatly with Fennell’s, but if there had been days and nights where we listened to our Pandora alt-indie station dreaming up of stories of idolization and betrayals, then there is a reason why I can critically dislike the movie but personally feel like I am seen.
I’m also willing to bet that the most cynical watcher might give in to some of the inspired shots and cinematography (shout out to Linus Sandgren, who was also behind the debaucherous landscape of Babylon). As Oliver settles into the daily clockwork of Saltburn, there are scenes where we see the posterior limbs and spine of a character, almost pausing for us to guess whether we are looking at Oliver or Felix (who look vastly different in every other angle). Fog sneaks onto the estate’s grounds, shrouding the characters in noir-like mystery — at least, right before Oliver says something ridiculous about being a vampire while performing cunnilingus on Venetia during her menstrual period. The best-looking scene takes place in the center of the Saltburn labyrinth, where Felix and Oliver have a tense conversation under a towering statue of a minotaur. If the trickery hasn’t been yet figured out, Saltburn exposes itself by thickly hinting at the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. But, in pop-culture fashion, Felix wears golden angel wings like a despondent but yearning Icarus and Oliver adorns antlers like the lovelorn boy from the Fall Out Boy music video. Maybe some would find this too heavy-handed in symbolism, but it’s the cinematic still I would have posted on my bedroom wall.
I understand that experience is not universal, and neither is this movie. Disparities in race and class might have been the goal in sight at the starting line, but its delight in wickedness — several notches from Promising Young Woman or her work in Killing Eve — might give a different statement by the time it reaches the finish line. A socioeconomic point was likely made, but extubation in a swift Excalibur-like motion will more likely make it to the front page.
*Not that this adds context to anything in this review, but I first saw this quote in Jennifer Garner’s post-divorce interview and found it so profound and sad. When I finally heard it in the movie, it was like finding the origin of a meme when you least expected it.
dir. Emerald Fennell
Now playing @ Coolidge Corner Theatre