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Saltburn (2023) is a mess

When Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” released in 2020, I was a staunch defender. The movie garnered a lot of criticism for putting on a façade of progressiveness, while ultimately swinging in the other direction. I understood where these views were coming from, but didn’t agree with parts of their analysis. While Promising Young Woman did end up muddying its waters with a messy third act: at the time, I justified it by telling myself that Fennell wasn’t just telling a story about sexual violence and the justice system. She was also telling a story about revenge, and wanted to express the stance that revenge isn’t always a good thing. Were those the best two themes to combine into one? Absolutely not, and that’s why I never regarded it as a masterpiece. However, I was willing to give Fennell the benefit of the doubt as a film-maker. It was one creative decision that led to her themes becoming blurred together. It would be wrong to judge a film maker over a single decision.

Enter Saltburn (2023), her second film. Saltburn is a movie about Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a scholarship student at Oxford University – who becomes smitten with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Felix invites Oscar, who is seemingly from a working class Liverpool background, to his estate in Saltburn – to spend the summer with his aristocratic family. What follows is a dark comedy, with Oliver finding his place inside this very strange culture. It’s raunchy, provocative and bloody – in more ways than one.

It’s, also, victim to all of the mistakes from Fennell’s debut. The following article contains spoilers for Saltburn (2023) and Promising Young Woman (2020).

Promising Young Liverpudlian

Saltburn, obviously, has a lot to say about class in the United Kingdom. It’s being described online as an “eat the rich” movie, in the same vein as something like The Menu (2022). There are certainly scenes in this movie that fall into that category. Rosamund Pike’s character (Felix’s mother) certainly falls into that category, as she has a great time hamming things up. There is certainly a black comedy about the upper class inside this movie. Dare I say it, there’s a good black comedy about the upper class here. However, there’s also a very good movie about sexual violence inside Promising Young Woman.

Keoghan’s Oliver is not a neutral character. He commits a lot of depraved acts throughout the course of the movie. One of the movie’s twists is that Oliver is not actually working class. He comes from a upper middle class family, who own a house in a nice suburb. While this plot twist exists seemingly to showcase how manipulative Oliver is and to break-down his relationship with Felix, it ends up completely undermining a lot of the narrative regarding class. Suddenly, the movie isn’t about how naïve and unkind the upper class are. It’s about how the middle class can have a very nice life with everything that they need, but they won’t be satisfied if there are people above them. It becomes a movie about jealousy, rather than a movie about the “haves” and the “have nots”.

Is that twist in themes a problem?

Under the right filmmaker, it might not be. The idea of capitalism necessitating growth and relying on class envy to function is an interesting theme. You could be the hardest working and luckiest upper middle-class person in the world, and you’ll still never be in the aristocracy. Even if you were to climb the social ladder and become a billionaire, you’d still be an outcast in this world. If that’s the story that Fennell is trying to tell, she doesn’t do a very good job at it.

It’s hard not to see this as a shocking narrative decision, without any regard for how it impacts the theme. Suddenly, the ending to Promising Young Woman looks less like two ill-advised themes and more just a belief that the idea of Cassie winning would be too predictable. Most already believed that her death at the end of that movie was purely for shock value – I didn’t believe that until now.

The movie would have worked a lot better without this twist, in my opinion. Oliver becomes a much more understandable character in that context – he would still be twisted and a villain, but he would make sense. In the current version, he’s just evil. A man who burns down the world to turn a good life into a great life.

Is Saltburn for the gays?

Saltburn is an attempt at a queer movie. Whether or not it succeeds is debatable. There is a lot of romantic tension between Keoghan and Elordi, and there are scenes of two men having sex. We’re treated to a scene in the bathtub and a scene in a cemetery, that have both been doing the rounds on social media. There’s no doubt that Saltburn contains characters who aren’t heterosexual, but is the movie for the gays?

It depends what your definition on a movie for the gays is. If you’re just looking for Jacob Eloridi dressed in some great outfits – then yes, absolutely. Go get him. If you’re asking if this movie has any relevance to queerness and has a plot that’s crafted with a queer audience in mind? I’m afraid not.

This movie tries really hard to be shocking – especially with the two scenes of depravity above. Those two scenes are the clearest examples we have of Oliver’s lust for Felix; and are the closest that we get to those two just having sex. I don’t think it was an intentional decision to have these two shocking scenes be based around homo-eroticism, but it does come across as very “look how shocking this is, a man doing a depraved thing towards another man!”. That’s the consensus online and I don’t know how much I agree with it. There is an equivalent scene of a heterosexual encounter, involving period blood. Obviously, that one doesn’t really work between two cisgender males. It feels like the decision to make a movie about a homosexual “couple” and the decision to make one of them a little creep was done independently, but the implications of this should’ve been considered.

Shock Value

One of the main topics of discourse regarding this movie is whether or not these scenes were shocking, or were they just lame.

I’ve seen far worse stuff in movies over the last year, but I don’t think that matters too much to the importance of the movie. The question is: what do these scenes add?

The bathroom and the grave scenes tell us two things:

  • Oliver is a little freak.
  • Oliver lusts for Felix.

That lust for Felix can be seen as metaphorical for his lust towards Saltburn, as a whole. By the end of the movie, its hardly even metaphorical – Oliver more or less announces this to the camera. I can, therefore, understand the value of the “shocking” bathroom scene. Its placement in the movie wakes us up to Oliver’s character and makes his feelings of lust clear. I think it works as an effective scene.

However, I can’t say the same for the graveyard scene. What new information does this tell us about Oliver? By this point, it’s very clear to us that he is unhinged and willing to do anything to earn this lifestyle. Is it a metaphor for how even with Felix dead, he still wants more? It’s much harder to justify this scene, and so it’s much easier to see it as a scene simply intended for people online to share and say “wow I watched this with my family on Christmas Eve, thanks a lot!”.

Substance and Style

I knew we were in for a ride when the first act of the movie involves a character criticizing another for “criticizing style instead of substance”. Oliver describes that as “lazy” thing to do. I was wondering whether that would end up being a theme explored in the movie, or if Fennell had just fancied making the lives of movie critics easier by giving them this weapon to bludgeon her with.

Saltburn is a beautiful movie. It’s shot in very interesting ways, the scenery is gorgeous, the outfits are easy to get fixated on and all of the actors do a fantastic job with what they’ve been given.

Yet, I can’t write a review about how brilliant all of that stuff is and then tag a little bit on at the end about how it lacks substance, when you’ve insulted that very idea. This is a really well stylized movie, that ruins all of its substance on a shocking twist, just like Promising Young Woman.

Rating: 4 / 10

This was a review for the 2023 movie “Saltburn”. Did you enjoy this movie or did it kill the groove (DJ)? Let us know in the comments below.

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