The year is 2006, and Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a reserved student at Oxford University, is an outsider. During his first tutorial — Oxford’s version of class — Oliver is quick to fade into the background, as he is immediately overshadowed by his peer, American Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), who has a familial connection with the tutor. Farleigh, a student whose charisma towers just as tall as he does, sits elegantly beside Oliver, all long limbs and a swooping spine. He pokes fun at Oliver’s use of the word “thus” in his essay, and Farleigh and the tutor share a look: Oliver is trying his best to project intelligence, the kind that comes easy, but his insistence on this one word gives himself away. The subtlety of this scene is a welcome introduction to Oliver and his insecurity at Oxford, highlighting his eagerness in contrast to Farleigh’s easygoing presence. At 6’5”, a height he would have just grown into, Farleigh exudes casual power. Oliver, at a glaring disadvantage in height, confidence, and more quietly, money, looks longingly from the edge. At first glance, Saltburn presents itself as a class satire, but as the film tumbles on, increasingly shocking scenes begin to unravel a once tightly woven plot.
Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film, Saltburn, named after the estate in which a majority of the film takes place, zeros in on Oliver as he is swept up in the life of the uber-wealthy, namely, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). The two are quick friends, and once Felix invites Oliver to his family estate for the summer, things start to get strange. Like sexy strange. There are power struggles, relationships built and broken, and a treasure to be won.
With a 4:3 aspect ratio, Fennell’s Saltburn confines the sweeping grounds of its majestic estate to a boxy frame, allowing the characters to traverse the space with a newfound sense of agency. They will not be overpowered by the Gothic architecture of Saltburn, but instead face off directly with each other, power dynamics established through charm and height. The aspect ratio, the inclusion of Superbad (on a shockingly small television), and the pop-filled soundtrack give Saltburn a taste of nostalgia. In any other moment, the film’s temporal setting can be completely forgotten, for even though there is a complete absence of social media, we don’t expect these kinds of characters to be on Instagram anyway.
Instead, we are immersed in a visually gorgeous bubble, framing Jacob Elordi in ways that I’ve only ever seen in my dreams or a perfume commercial. Skin glistens in the setting sun, eyes sparkle with the reflection of the pool, and one-liners from the residents of Saltburn drip with the kind of condescension that tastes sweet at first. When Oliver first arrives, one unassuming suitcase in tow, he is greeted by a labyrinth of opulent rooms. Felix gives a tour that is both frustratingly vague and shallow, a combination I increasingly felt as the film went on.
Everything about Saltburn’s presentation just seemed so perfect, so meticulous. Each performance was spellbinding, creating characters that constantly juggled with their own simultaneous beauty and emptiness. I felt like I was being led down a progressively darkening rabbit hole, and I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a “The Talented Mr. Ripley” situation, or the complete opposite. What could Saltburn’s twist be, besides the dizzying maze in its own backyard?
Over drinks in Fergie’s Pub, a bar on 13th and Sansom, my friend told me exactly what Saltburn was about: “Real estate!” He was silent for a moment after that, seemingly content with his answer. “And lust,” he added on.
At the time, I couldn’t find the words to add onto, or even dispute his answer. I was still trying to wrap my head around the actions Fennell dared to share on screen. A day later, at a college round table with Fennell, she seemed to both affirm and contradict my thoughts.
In response to one of the students mentioning that many of her peers found some scenes to be “unnecessarily weird and explicitly” Fennell replied, “And then, at one point, the audience kind of starts to turn on itself because everyone thinks that everyone else’s response is crazy and wrong,” which was true enough. By framing her goal around an intended contradictory response, Fennell absolves herself from taking any stance on the socio-economic extremes she depicts. I was still reeling, trying to crack the stunning cinematography for something messier. Did I not know enough about the intricacies of the British class system? Was I missing something bigger, something smarter within Fennell’s script?
But even as Fennell assured us that that’s exactly “why you make movies, […] for people to not necessarily know how they’re supposed to physically or emotionally respond to something,” she also told us some things that this film is definitely about.
Fennell told us that it’s about love, as thoroughly messed up as it can get. It’s “about what happens to you when you cannot touch the thing you want to touch.”
It’s about “what happens when love can’t find its home, because nothing in this film would’ve happened if — well, I mean, it might have to some degree at some point, but, you know, it wasn’t what he [Oliver] wanted. He just wanted what we all wanted, which was to be loved back in the same way.”
In the end, I’m grateful Fennell gave me permission to disagree with her, to react to her film in whatever way I want. Saltburn is a film devoid of love, from the vapid parents to the careless way Felix treats the girls who crush on him. Oliver’s eyes brim with obsession, with longing, with jealousy. He tells us at the beginning of the film, in a setting we can’t quite discern, that he never loved Felix. Fennell tells us that this statement is a lie, but everything I’ve seen from Oliver cannot convince me that there was any love in his actions.
Oliver continues to make increasingly shocking choices, the kind that are laced with selfish pleasure. We do not have to wonder how far he will go, as every step deeper is captured on film, until we sit alone in the basement, wondering if we are at the center of the earth. It’s burning like Hell and discomfort, and it doesn’t feel anything like love.
Saltburn, at the end of its 131-minute runtime, is perfectly manufactured to please my first impression. It’s beautiful — every frame and actor floating through cigarette smoke and lavishness. The enchanting visual elements successfully obscured any analysis I attempted to do on the fly, and while Fennell still can’t convince me that this is a film about love, casting Jacob Elordi as the ‘object of affection’ is almost good enough.
Talking about Felix, played by Jacob Elordi
“You know, the film is also about like what we as an
audience are willing to forgive for beauty and charm.”