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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” is sexy and absurd at best, disappointing at worst

Emerald Fennell offers up a toothless satire that doesn’t know what it’s poking fun at, but at least it looks beautiful doing it.

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After watching “Saltburn,” my first reaction was not one of shock or disgust, but rather disappointment. I remember thinking what a shame it was that from now on, the film would be mentioned in tandem with the likes of “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” when “Saltburn” is but a glitter-covered, uninspiring imitation of such stories.

Set in the mid-aughts, the film lures the audience in with nostalgic needle drops from MGMT and Arcade Fire, wonderful work by director of photography Linus Sandgren and a star-studded cast. As someone who spent way too much time on Tumblr growing up, trust me — I understand the power of aesthetics. But when the high of watching hot 20-year-olds sunbathe naked in the English countryside against the backdrop of a spectacular mansion wears off, what is the audience left with? A movie that does a lot but says very little in the process.

The story begins at Oxford University, where first-year Oliver Quick, played by Barry Keoghan, soon realizes that he doesn’t fit in. His clothes are second-hand from Oxfam, he doesn’t have a title and, when it comes to parties, he is NFI — “not fucking invited.” Despite alienation from his high society classmates, he is drawn to Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi, who embodies attractiveness in every sense of the word. Though Felix is wealthy and spoiled, he is a sweet sort of dumb, ditzy and unpretentious, with an eyebrow piercing and worn-out sweaters to prove it. During a chance encounter, Oliver lends Felix his bike after seeing Felix has a flat tire on the way to class. “Oliver, I love you! I love you! I love you!” Felix exclaims before riding off. This is how their friendship begins. 

It isn’t long before Oliver and Felix enter one of those deep, boundary-crossing companionships — à la “Jennifer’s Body.” The two exchange kisses on the cheek, vulnerable stories of their pasts, childhood photos and “I love you’s.” Some of the most effective scenes in the film happen during their time at Oxford. These moments brought me back to the intoxicating first months of college, when I spent my days with people I just met but felt like I had known forever. Flashes of nights spent dancing under strobe lights, bottle in hand, melt into vignettes of the two boys discussing their families, where Oliver reveals to a doe-eyed Felix that his parents struggle with addiction and mental illness.

At university, Oliver’s life is going better than ever, until one day he receives a phone call from his mother. In a teary admission, Oliver tells Felix that his father died in an accident. So what else is Felix to do but invite him to spend the summer at his family’s countryside estate, Saltburn?

Once Oliver and the audience arrive at Saltburn, we are assaulted with a slew of outrageous caricatures of the upper-class, also known as the Catton Family. Elspeth and Sir James, played by Rosamund Pike and Richard Grant respectively, are Felix’s droll, posh parents, who spend their days doing God knows what and their nights hosting dinner parties. Venetia, their sultry daughter, played by Alison Oliver, lurks in the back of every scene, typically sporting days-old smudged eyeliner and a revealing outfit. There’s also Felix’s cousin and Oxford classmate, Farleigh, played by Archie Madekwe, who, as the painfully stereotypical queer character, is never that far away from uttering a sassy quip, to which Oliver is usually the recipient. 

Through the estate and its inhabitants, director Emerald Fennell puts opulence on full display — but not full blast. From the offhanded mention of Shakespeare’s folio in the Catton library to their black-tie dinners and Bernard Palissy ceramic platter collection, Fennell has all the tools to create a good-old fashioned class satire, yet she doesn’t.

Critics have dubbed this as a shortcoming of the film, but what they do not realize is that “Saltburn” isn’t meant to be a biting commentary on high society at all. Sure, there are a handful of scenes and witty one-liners that poke fun at the Cattons — demonstrating how wealth has allowed them to live in their own reality — but they never do anything that makes the audience dislike them. So, when they meet their untimely end, the audience feels conflicted, instead of feeling satisfied — like many did with the ending of “The Menu” or “Parasite.” We have grown fond of these characters, maybe we even like them, and we certainly aren’t happy to see them go.

Oxford classmates and Cattons alike toss around insults that Oliver is a sycophant, desperate to permeate a society he doesn’t belong in. At first, these remarks seem unfair, but when Fennell shows the audience that’s what he was all along, those moments lose their potential to serve as upper-class commentary. Whether this is the result of laziness or a blind spot in Fennell’s writing abilities, I can’t tell.

One could argue that “Saltburn” is instead a subversive story about the middle class’s obsessive dissatisfaction with their status, as represented by Oliver, who turns out to be a suburbanite with a picturesque life, and not the son of two drug addicts as he claimed to be. But even that doesn’t go far enough — there’s hardly any evidence to sustain Oliver’s contempt for Felix’s family, besides the fact that they live in excess, and he lives in mere comfort. 

This would all be fine if Fennell didn’t repeatedly mention the absurdity of social status in various interviews to advertise  “Saltburn” as a mockery of the upper-class. But, in the mediocre age of film we are in, there is simply no room for such a toothless simulacrum of a satire, marketed as a sexy “eat-the-rich” film in order to sell tickets.

As the movie continues, many things fall apart, but one thing is clear — Fennell knows how to capture an aesthetic. This spurs an interesting philosophical debate: Can a film still be good if it’s beautiful, but the plot is a mess? What about the other way around?

But, the movie does not fail because it’s dependance on aesthetics, in fact, that is one of its only strengths. There are movies I love purely because of the way they look, but these films recognize that they rely on visuals as their primary storytelling mechanism. The problem with “Saltburn” is that it does not think of itself as one of these movies. 

Fennell oozes a smug, self-satisfied attitude through absurd scenes that are employed for nothing but shock value and a culminating “gotcha” moment doesn’t “get” anyone at all. Prior to Oliver’s confession, the audience knows he has been lying to the Cattons for over an hour, so the reveal packs no punch at all. And for those of you saying “Saltburn” is the most provocative thing you’ve ever seen, might I suggest Haneke’s “Caché” or Araki’s “Mysterious Skin”: movies with shock that might actually make you reflect.

Even worse, these shocking moments and final twist undermine all of Oliver’s character building that Fennell established in the first half of the movie. At first, we’re led to believe that Oliver wants friends, then that he wants Felix and later that he actually wants to be Felix. These motivations take different trajectories, pulling Oliver in any which way Fennell desires, which ultimately ends up pulling him apart. 

Keoghan’s naked frolic through Saltburn at the end of the movie is certainly the nail in his character’s coffin. I can’t deny that every time I listen to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor,” I think of it, but this scene, like others before it, is insulting to Fennell’s characters as well as the audience who just spent two hours of their lives watching this movie. 

Arguably, a more ambiguous ending could have better served the film. If “Saltburn” instead concluded after Oliver left the estate, the uncertainty surrounding the deaths of the Catton children would have been much more thought-provoking than the ending she chose. Did Oliver kill Felix and Venetia, or were those simply just accidents? 

So, “Saltburn” does not end with a whimper, or with the loud, spectacular bang that Fennell was certainly going for. It lies in some disappointing valley in between, where the audiences are left wondering not only what just happened, but what’s the point?

Rating: ★★☆☆☆