Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is arguably 2023’s most polarizing film, and for good reason. My initial thought after finishing this film was, “This is The Talented Mr. Ripley on steroids.” Although it runs for 2 hours and 10 minutes and hammers the details into your head, Saltburn actually leaves much to desire at the end of the film. This is a chaotic film that, in parts, will leave you squirming and averting your eyes, screaming, “No, make it stop.” As uncomfortable as it is, though, there’s a strange, alluring nature that keeps you going despite the predictable nature of the film. The past few years, we’ve been bombarded by the “eat the rich” genre, possibly a direct result of the pandemic. Saltburn seems to fit into that category, yet it subverts it because of how superficial it all seems. The film follows Oliver Quick (yeah, you could switch it for Twist), a young man at Oxford University in 2006. Oliver is the siren song for bullies; he’s the picture of a submissive and weak fish out of water at the university. On the other hand, there’s Felix, the impeccable, handsome man that everyone desires. He’s hot and rich, both things Oliver can only dream of. The poster for Saltburn with Jacob Elordi as Felix is actually an interesting representation of how Oliver views him. Sunlight seeps through the window from behind him as his perfect body gets lit from the back forming a halo, making him look like a god, kind, and highly desirable.
What Happens In The Film?
Most of Saltburn is Oliver’s quest for Felix’s love. The movie begins with him talking to someone off-screen, telling them how he wasn’t in love with Felix but that he loved him deeply. It’s an interesting conflict he has within himself that doesn’t quite become clear as the movie progresses; in fact, it leaves us more confused because if Oliver’s actions truly stem from romantic love, then the subsequent results don’t quite add up. There’s a terrifying, chaotic vibe to the film that keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times. Right from the beginning, when Oliver enters the Oxford campus, he’s removed from the noise and the “craziness” of this new world. Interestingly, he dressed like innocent Harry Potter, the young boy who took over Hogwarts with his skills (we’ll see what kind of skills Ollie possesses soon enough). Oliver meets Farleigh first. He’s Felix’s cousin, the gay black man who is simply living off of the Cattons. We soon learn that Felix is actually quite a nice man, especially for the opulence he’s lived in.
Oliver and Felix’s (supposed) chance encounter happens when Felix gets a flat tire while biking to class. Oliver finds him all sad and sulking by the side of the road and starts up a conversation. Without any worry, Oliver gives Felix his own bike so that he can go to his class. Felix is immensely grateful for the bike and even gives Oliver helmet kisses to thank him (remember, he didn’t even know of his existence five minutes before). Felix brings Oliver into his circle (much to Farleigh’s dismay) quickly after, but the difference between the two guys is quite stark. Not just in status, but apparently Oliver’s had a terrible life because his parents have “mental health issues” and “addiction” problems. A little while into their friendship, Oliver tells Felix that his father died from drinking too much, leaving him numb. This information obviously tightens their friendship because Felix notices how resilient Oliver really is, giving exams when his father’s just died and all.
When Felix realizes that Oliver doesn’t want to visit his addict mother, he invites him over to his own home, the Saltburn estate. It’s like Harry Potter at Hogwarts for real this time. This is an actual palace! It’s oozing luxury, and Felix shows Oliver through it as if he’s the bunny showing Alice through Wonderland. It’s truly marvelous, and Oliver is back to being the lost puppy in a maze. Felix’s family is interesting, to say the least. His mom has a phobia for all things ugly, so Oliver isn’t even allowed to grow stubble. His sister is simply strange, and there’s his father, who simply exists. Apparently, Elsbeth, Felix’s mom, likes to invite people over and have them live there for days. After all, it is a palace, no? Pamela, a “friend,” has been living with them for a while, and she’s starting to feel like a leech to the family. They’re desperate to throw her out, and they don’t hide this fact, not even from Oliver. In fact, Elsbeth’s entire perception of Pamela is quite outrageously petty, making it seem like she’s there simply as someone for the family to push around.
At first, it feels as if Oliver’s the next Pamela; he simply doesn’t know how to handle himself in this large home; the awkwardness is palpable. He forces himself to fit in, whatever the family expects of him, without question. Felix is naive and nice, but it is painstakingly clear that the entire family is quite aloof and opaque as rocks, completely unbothered about the “real world.” Elsbeth doesn’t even know where Liverpool is and claims she doesn’t really want to know about anything. She even goes as far as to say, “Pamela died because she’d do anything for attention (Rosamund Pike nailed this delivery!).”
What Is Oliver’s Intention?
Somewhere near the end of the first act of Saltburn, it starts to turn a little more sinister than it seems. It starts to become clear that Oliver is not who he claims to be. He begins to play around with the feelings of the whole family, manipulating them into trusting him. The family all dress up for dinner, and Oliver wears Felix’s old tux, which he had nicely kept aside for him before he arrived (knowing Oliver probably never had one). His outfits go from Harry Potter to mimicking Felix’s casual new money polos to a confident young man in a tux by this point. Oliver is so self-assured that he even tells Elsbeth that she’s so beautiful that it’ll be difficult for her daughter Venetia to deal with that pressure. He then proceeds to have sexual relations with said daughter while she’s menstruating, calling himself a vampire. Personally, I think he’s more like a mosquito that keeps buzzing in your ear until you die of malaria.
Oliver’s like a snake, slithering through the cracks of the Saltburn estate, which is supposed to be like a maze, yet for him, it’s a simple, straight road to his destination, Saltburn. The family’s detachment from the world is probably what blinds them to his guileful ways. Farleigh is the only one of the lot who sees his true cunning nature, but when he tries to show the family what Oliver’s true nature is, he’s the one who gets kicked out.
Does Oliver Truly Love Felix?
If you thought this was one of those queer movies where the gay protagonist finds a deep, unfathomable connection with a straight man who quickly turns gay for said gay man, then you’re way wrong. At the same time, if you were thinking you’d get a “Triangle of Sadness” equivalent study of classism, then you’d be wrong too. There are two highly disturbing scenes to watch in this film. One is when Oliver watches Felix pleasure himself in a bathtub and then slurps up the water before it all drains away after he’s gone (nah, if you actually watched this entire scene without looking away, I applaud you). There are two ways we can understand Oliver’s feelings for Felix in this scene. One is that he wants to literally embody the man by swallowing his bodily fluids (bleh); it’s almost as if he’s drinking his own version of sacramental wine—a step closer to his god. At the same time, even his strange relationship with Venetia makes it seem as if he simply wants to be close to anything that is remotely related to Felix. He can’t have a straight man, so he’ll take his sister (gosh, just putting these words down makes me feel weird). Of course, the elementary answer is that Oliver simply desires Felix but can’t do anything about it. This is the homophobic late 2000s, and Felix is most certainly straight, as we’ve seen him get with many women through the film; don’t be confused by an eyebrow piercing.
Yes, Oliver loves Felix; it’s more than a platonic love; it’s an admiration, an idealization, an aspiration. Felix is everything that Oliver is not, and this makes him both attracted to him in an opposites-attract kind of way (but also because Felix comes across as the type who is everyone’s first love) and in the I want to be like this man kind of way (god analogy, you know). So maybe he was simply hiding the fact that he was in love with him because his other ulterior motives were more profound.
On Oliver’s birthday, Felix decides to surprise him by taking him home after having a word with his mother. This is when the gates of chaos are swung open. It turns out Oliver’s actually from an impeccable and kind middle-class family (both parents are alive and well) with two sisters. Felix is absolutely devastated to know the truth and feels completely disjointed after this escapade. There’s a party for Oliver that night, but Felix wants him out immediately after it’s done because they can’t cancel at the last minute. Plus, he can’t leave his family heartbroken like that after they showered Oliver with so much love (you know, allowing him to live in the castle). The party is themed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Oliver has some horns. These horns resemble those of a minotaur that stands tall at the center of the estate’s maze.
What Happens To The Cattons?
Saltburn in many ways reminds me of “The Secret History.” There’s a dark academia kind of spin to it, and in many ways, Oliver is like Richard, the new guy who really wants to fit into the rich clique of old-money Greek students who command admiration and love from him. Yet he’s also like Henry, the mastermind behind everyone turning somewhat crazy (no spoilers if you haven’t read it). In many ways, Farleigh is like Bunny, the cunning and mean-spirited one of the lot, who doesn’t have quite the desirable ending. The day after the party, Felix is found dead in the middle of the maze, in the same spot where Oliver somewhat confessed to him. Oliver tells Felix after the party, where Felix completely ignored him, that he told the lies because that’s what Felix wanted to hear. He simply gave him what he wanted in order to be a part of his lavish life. Ironically, Felix is the nicest of the lot, so he would’ve been friends with Oliver even if he weren’t a pathological liar turned serial killer, but what do we know? Felix’s body is found on the floor, still wearing the golden wings from the costume party. As the shadow of the minotaur falls on the grass, it looks as if it’s lifting Felix up, about to sacrifice him. Unfortunately, he’s already been sacrificed (whoops).
I don’t think it’s really necessary to foreshadow that it was in fact Oliver who poisoned Felix, but I suppose that’s a way to symbolize it for us. Elsbeth’s desire for normalcy is so strong (similar to that of the Queen of England, I suppose) that even with her son lying dead, she rings the lunch bells. It’s a terribly awkward lunch, and it seems only Oliver can truly stomach his food. Earlier, Oliver got Farleigh kicked out of the house by making it look like he tried to knick an expensive plate (very racist). He’s invited again to the party, considering he is Elsbeth’s sister’s son. At lunch, Farleigh can’t stand the sight of Oliver at the table, and he brings up the fact that he shouldn’t be around at all considering Felix is now dead, but Oliver twists the knife further into Farleigh’s chest when he tells everyone that he was “doing lines” the night of the death. I suppose if it were one of their own children doing drugs, they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but since it’s Farleigh, Sir James (the father) immediately throws him out, cutting off all his cash (harsh).
At the funeral, Oliver cries his eyes out, and after everyone leaves and Felix is buried, he copulates with the dirt on top of his grave (remember that third scene I was talking about?). Two bodies, one soul? Maybe? One body, some dirt, and one soul? Okay. Oliver finds Venetia in the bathtub later that night (yes, the same one), and this is when she sees his true colors. She calls his politeness “grating” and proceeds to say that he’s like Spider-Man, weaving a web of lies around the Catton family. She’s quite right, actually, yet she’s strangely still attracted to him. At the end of the movie, Oliver leaves some blades for Venetia because he claims she said she couldn’t live without Felix. Would it really turn out so easy for Oliver? I’m not quite sure, but maybe we can pretend he helped her actually slit her wrists.
I suppose Sir James’ eyes open up to Oliver’s duplicitous ways, or he’s simply hurting from his son’s death and can’t bear to see the sight of Oliver. On the other hand, Elsbeth is getting rather attached, so there is more reason for Oliver to leave. This is when he pays Oliver off. We can imagine it’s a hefty sum for a person like Oliver, who worked so hard for so long, to be thrown out so simply.
How Does Oliver Get The Estate?
Years later, Oliver coincidentally “bumps into” Elsbeth just after James’ passing. She’s overjoyed to see him, all grown up, a man! She apologizes for how James treated him and then invites him over to the house again (this woman needs an award for vapidity). Ultimately, Oliver does move to Saltburn again, and somehow Elsbeth wills the estate to him (this makes no sense at all; argue with a wall). At the end of the film, it’s revealed that Oliver is actually talking to Elsbeth, who is, you guessed it, on her deathbed. She’s dying of some sort of respiratory illness, and before Oliver kills her, he basically gives her a recap of the whole film, telling her how he killed her kids. In the end, he straddles her and pulls out the breathing equipment (the style, though).
There’s a ritual the Cattons do when someone dies in the family. Write the person’s name on a piece of rock and then throw it in a water body. Oliver collects the four stones as if he’s conquered the whole family. The last scene of the movie is surely cathartic for those who care even the slightest for Oliver as a character (or Barry Keoghan’s butt). Even his dance moves are serpentine as he slides through the house completely naked, dancing to his triumphant victory (fittingly to the song “Murder on the Dance Floor”). When he finds the four stones, they’re placed on top of this box with puppets in it, representing how he played with the cats to get what he wanted. I suppose we have to watch this film in as much of an “out of touch” manner as the Catton family. As much as it wants to be a film that explores class, homosexuality, and racism, it ends up simply grazing the surface because, at the end of the day, it’s just a story about an obsessed fanboy. The film is very much present in the time period it’s representing, not only in the way that it is delivered, but it comes across as just as stunted as the films of that era. Oliver’s motivations are never truly made clear in the film. Yes, he’s obsessed with wealth, but why? I suppose we’re meant to simply think he’s a bad person who is massively obsessive. I suppose he does eat up the family like a parasite from within.
I’m left more confused at the end of this movie than I was when it started. It’s got the makings of something fantastic for sure, and the performances are mind-blowing, yet the end is quite flat. I suppose here’s another evil homosexual character who can’t do anything about his homosexuality and chooses to become a psychopathic murderer instead.