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Saltburn

A Masterclass in Tone: Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn

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“I wasn’t in love with him.
I know everyone thought I was. But I wasn’t.
I loved him, of course.
But was I ‘in love’ with him?…”


From the very opening moments of Saltburn, in a courtroom-esque monologue delivered by leading man Oliver Quick, writer-director Emerald Fennell lets us know instantly that our protagonist is not only an unreliable narrator – but he’s also possibly a liar.

We know this because, as Oliver seemingly addresses the camera head on, we see flashes of his point of view. First an image of an impossibly beautiful, sweaty Felix: the object of Oliver’s desire and memory, whose 6’5” frame is draped across the screen, dangling like a piece of meat hanging from the hook, as Oliver recalls the story that is about to unfold.

Saltburn is a Gothic romance intentionally built over the classic thriller infrastructure. It’s a story about a young outcast, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), who arrives at Oxford from working class Liverpool and develops an attraction and desire toward another student, the outlandishly handsome and upper-class Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Building on similar works that have preceded it (Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Brideshead Revisited), Oliver and Felix have a seemingly random meet-cute – and the two begin to develop a friendship of sorts, leading to glimpses of Oliver’s complicated family history – a dead father and a drug-addicted mother, of whom he’s finally escaped the grips with his ticket out coming by way of a scholarship. As their relationship grows through the school year, Felix invites Oliver to come out to Saltburn, his family’s grade level listed manor house in the English countryside, to spend the summer break.

As an audience, we think we’re settled in for a Gothic romantic drama.

However, this is a film written and directed by Emerald Fennell (whose incredibly polarizing 2020 debut feature, Promising Young Woman, won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), so rest assured that as this narrative plays out, it’s going to take a few very twisted turns. There is a thrilling pulse that underwrites the story like a heartbeat (thanks to the masterful score by Anthony Willis), slowly building a sense of dread, but Fennell subverts any familiar themes almost immediately. She’s toying with these themes and her audience’s expectations of said themes, blowing them up and pushing them through this familiar “Gothic romance thriller” lens, and we end up with an entirely new genre that can only come from as unique a voice as Fennell’s. The descent into desire that Oliver falls prey to is layered with dark humor and amplified to extremely uncomfortable heights, and that’s precisely the point. Somehow, we are rooting for Oliver despite the increasingly questionable decisions he makes (and despite the glimpses of unreliability and deception that Fennell subtly lays out from the start). We are uncomfortable because we are complicit in these actions; we think we understand him and why he’s doing them. Because most people know exactly what it’s like to be on the outside looking IN. The Anatomy of Desire. That insatiable hunger for wanting something one cannot have, may very well be the most consuming and devastating human emotion. We ARE Oliver. Pressing our faces against the glass from the outside, desperate to belong.

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At the start of the second act, Oliver arrives at the sprawling Saltburn estate and receives a tour of the expansive property (“Dead relatives everywhere!”; “Henry Tudor’s vanity”; a master suite with “Henry the Eighth’s spunk still on the mattress!”) and is welcomed by Felix’s outrageously out of touch, albeit hilarious, family – Sir James and Lady Elspeth (played deliciously by veterans Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike, recently nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here), as well as his waifish sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver) – accompanied by Felix’s cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), and Elspeth’s eccentric, chronically crashing friend Pamela (a Carey Mulligan cameo so memorable she nearly steals the whole film). Upon arrival, we see glimpses of the insidious nature bubbling under the surface of Oliver’s presentation as he slowly begins to reveal his true self… and Willis scores this like an unnerving pulse, as though it’s a sonic extension of the character himself.

As film critic Mark Kermode put it recently, “[Keoghan] combines sweetness with menace in a way that’s unparalleled.” Props to Fennell who recognized this within Barry Keoghan and cast him in his very first leading role. This is finally the vessel an actor of this caliber deserves, and Keoghan (also recently Golden Globe nominated for his work here) is more than up for the task.

Saltburn lives or dies by its performances, and I’ve said it before – I said it this time last year (see the Banshees of Inisherin piece I wrote for The Frida), and I’ve been saying it since 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer – an actor like this comes around once in a generation.

Keoghan makes us care about Oliver while simultaneously doing such deranged things; he pulls us in like a magnet – with a sheer gravitational force that only a handful of actors ever possess if they’re lucky. We believe in this scenario, in this invitation back to Saltburn and the series of shocking events and manipulation that follow because we also are drawn in toward Oliver like gravity.

Elordi has a tricky role and a fine line to walk when it comes to his supporting work as “the object of Desire,” essentially. But he fleshes out Felix from the outside in – capable of snobbery, sure, but Felix is good at his core.

Fennell is fearless in her direction. She’s not interested in giving us anything less than absolute greatness. And as Muse, Keoghan is clearly on board to do whatever his writer-director asks of him.

Fennell, on her second feature here, already mashes up genre and manipulates the tone with masterful precision, disguising a sinister sensation under bright, neon-like colors and beautiful cinematography, stylistic choices she began developing in Promising Young Woman, which are becoming her signature.

Fennell plays with identity, voyeurism, and the idea of doubles, à la another Patricia Highsmith gem, Strangers on a Train, using mirrors and deploying a beautiful and eerily foreshadowing doppelganger moment during a monologue Venetia delivers on the subject.

As a writer, she doesn’t put her characters inside genre boxes, either. There isn’t a label on who these people are. They’re not just “sociopaths” or “depressed,” “hetero” or just “queer”; they aren’t placed carefully inside a box of their condition. These characters are just people who want things.

We all relate to yearning. Desperately wanting access to… something, or someone.

And the ultimate inevitability of loneliness and isolation when we do not get it.

Visually, this sentiment is communicated so well by Fennell’s choice to shoot in 4:3 ratio (also known as 1.33:1). It’s an old-fashioned framing that more closely resembles a painting. It’s also an extremely challenging commercial choice, but for Fennell it’s an artistic one, integral in showing how she displays who has the power in this story and who doesn’t, and how that power switches over the course of the film. Fennell has a masterful grip on playing with visual metaphors – the height and space between people in a frame or the sprawling landscape and intricate details of the house itself.

This ratio choice confines these beautiful people to a box, trapping them in this house, like the antique puppet theater toy that Oliver finds.

4:3 ratio is also perfect for faces. It’s perfect for houses. The sense of yearning reads on Oliver’s face in the 4:3 close-up aspect ratio so vulnerably that it breaks your heart. We are rooting for this character. We may even consider him our protagonist no matter what he does – despite the deceitful path he’s walking at Saltburn in an effort to essentially find his permanent place there.

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And find a way in, Oliver does… as initially, unbeknownst to everyone at Saltburn, Felix has invited a vampire into their home. A parasite who quite literally sucks the life out of this entire family, infiltrating them one by one.

As the summer comes to a close, Oliver has woven a deceitful narrative that Felix accidentally stumbles upon when, in good faith, he arranges a surprise visit to Oliver’s drug-addicted mother on the morning of his birthday. A visit that leads to a revelatory discovery as Felix sees that Oliver has lied extensively about his upbringing and parents, presenting himself as a vulnerable victim who needs rescuing (traits that initially drew Felix to Oliver in the first place).

Which brings us to the big, magnificent set piece which Saltburn is centered around – the night of Oliver’s Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed birthday bash at the manor put on by Lady Elspeth. Felix brokers a deal with him on the eve of the party: he won’t mention this to the family, so long as Oliver quietly leaves Saltburn the next day, condemned back to his lonely world of isolation and exclusion.

For Oliver, this is the most devastating news imaginable and a fate he’s simply unwilling to accept.

There are glimpses into Oliver’s slipping psyche, though. Oliver isn’t eliminating this family one by one because he’s a “sociopath.” It’s so much more complex than that. He’s doing it because he just wants to stay. He wants to belong to something, and that’s what motivates him to make the choices he makes, out of sheer human desperation. A feeling so vulnerable and uncomfortable it can often make us do the craziest things. This is brilliantly depicted visually when Oliver, spying on Felix in an intimate moment through a crack in the door, leads him to quite literally slurp up the bodily fluids left over by the object of his obsession in a bathtub.

As each family member begins to figure him out – first Felix, then Farleigh, and finally Venetia – Oliver removes them like chess pieces he’s checked in a match because they present an obstacle between Oliver and what Oliver wants so badly.

Fennell’s camera trails Oliver as he navigates the chaotic, costumed birthday party where he has been ostracized by Felix and doesn’t know any of the 200 or so guests who have come to celebrate with him. Oliver is utterly alone and excluded once again – only this time he is surrounded by strangers who can’t even recall his name as the crowd sings “Happy Birthday” to him, in a particularly gut-wrenching moment.

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I’d be remiss to write a piece on Saltburn and Fennell’s work and not discuss the blatantly sexist and bizarre online backlash Fennell and the film have received, stemming mostly from fellow white women. The primary sentiment echoed has been that Fennell herself hails from an “upper class English family” (“Her father’s a jeweler, just look at her name!”), thus giving her no right to write a satirical commentary of the environment in which she herself was born into and has personally experienced. This argument is disappointing to me but not surprising, and certainly nothing new for women creating art in a male-dominated space.

Aren’t writers supposed to write what they know? Reflections of their truth? Are we really at a place in our culture where we aren’t allowing people (more so women, with a capital W) to write about where they come from and what they’ve witnessed firsthand? That is what art is all about! This is part of what makes Fennell’s original point of view so fascinating to digest. She writes about what she has possibly experienced and suddenly the online discourse is “How dare this rich, white woman write about and poke fun at… rich white people?!”

This bandwagon of popular online backlash against women reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, released in 2006, which suffered a similar slew of tired criticism as well. But now nearly two decades after its release, the collective response is “Oh, Marie Antoinette actually is a masterpiece, I guess we were wrong to describe her skill set as style over substance.”

Consider Bradley Cooper – also an actor turned writer-director who has had a similar trajectory as Fennell, with two features now under his belt, yet there is no online rhetoric or discourse over his material? It’s simply just “masterful work.”

What is it about a woman with a camera and power in Hollywood that terrifies people so much?

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Above all, though, Saltburn is a story about desire. About watching and voyeurism. About wanting, longing, belonging to something. A painful, mixed bag of emotions that resonate with every human being that has a heartbeat. Keoghan understands that, and that’s why we root for Oliver, despite his behavior. Therein lies the secret ingredient to the sheer magic of this film.

In my opinion, this is key to the core of Saltburn, and nowhere is this more validated or better reflected than in the film’s magnificent and oh, so memorable ending.

The power that this final climax holds is where the audience feels complicit. A complicity in the rewards Oliver has reaped from his deplorable actions – and we celebrate alongside him. That theme of desire, sewn into the fabric of this story, helps us relate to his journey – even if most of us will never, ever go as far as he does to get what we want.

Emerald Fennell is proving herself a master at combining genres and playing with shifts in tone and the audience’s expectations – skills she executes so masterfully that one can’t even see the seams.

Saltburn is a film meant to be experienced through feeling. And if the viewer trusts Fennell and her virtuosic cast to hold on to the reins, it’s a hell of a cinematic ride to take over and over again.

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