Emerald Fennell follows up her Oscar-winning screenplay for Promising Young Woman with another provocative social satire in Saltburn. Set in 2006, the film chronicles a tense summer at an aristocratic family’s countryside manor when Jacob Elordi’s entitled heir Felix Catton invites his scholarly acquaintance Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) into his lavish world. What begins as a Brideshead Revisited-esque tale of class tourism soon simmers with homoerotic tension and eventually boils over in betrayal.
With Saltburn, English director Fennell continues her streak of crafting potently stylized thrillers examining society’s power imbalances through a darkly comedic lens. Bolstered by slick production values and a killer era-appropriate indie soundtrack, the film sees Fennell further testing the limits with audacious sequences involving bathwater drinking and menstrual blood.
By casting the beguiling Elordi as an oblivious object of desire and the mercurial Keoghan as his cunning admirer, Fennell establishes an engrossing core relationship to anchor this story of toxic entitlement. As we’ll explore, Saltburn may flounder narratively in its final act, but it remains a wickedly fun and occasionally shocking satire on class divides. Read on to see if Fennell’s latest provocation lives up to its extravagantly decadent promise.
An Illicit Affair with Privilege
Saltburn chronicles the risky infatuation between two young men divided by social standing. Barry Keoghan stars as the cunning Oliver Quick, a scrappy Oxford scholarship student who becomes enthralled by his popular classmate Felix Catton, played with aloof charm by Jacob Elordi. Hoping to transcend his humble beginnings, Oliver strategically inserts himself into Felix’s inner circle and secures an invitation to summer with his wealthy family at their sprawling countryside estate Saltburn.
Oliver quickly ingratiates himself with Felix’s relatives, including his fashionable mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) and eccentric father Sir James (Richard E. Grant). Behind their backs, however, Oliver nurtures an increasingly twisted obsession with Felix. Through furtive gazes and stolen keepsakes, Oliver lives vicariously through Felix’s gilded lifestyle while concealing his mysterious intentions.
After a night of drunken revelry sets the stage for intimacy, Felix warily returns Oliver’s subtle advances. Their courtship intensifies through sexually charged encounters both tender and profane. Yet as Oliver worms deeper into the family’s confidences, the class resentment simmering beneath his charming façade threatens to boil over.
When the Catton’s caretaker turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, long-buried secrets claw their way to the surface. With far more than his place at Oxford now at stake, Oliver resorts to brutal self-preservation at all costs. His designs on Felix’s affection, identity, and inheritance drive the summer towards its violent unraveling.
By the film’s end, Oliver’s social ascension comes at a catastrophic price for his enablers. With Saltburn’s fate mirroring the bitter downfall of its inhabitants, Fennell savagely indicts dynastic wealth and liberation bought through deception. Fueled by Elordi and Keoghan’s breakout dual performance, Saltburn is a incendiary tale of corrupted innocence and the toxicity bred by class divides.
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Navigating Forbidden Desires and Deadly Deceptions
At its core, Saltburn is a provocative examination of class boundaries and the corrupting influence of privilege. Fennell amplifies the class contrasts between Oliver and Felix’s worlds through telling visual cues. Oliver appears diminutive and awkward next to Felix’s towering, athletic frame, with his pale skin and austere wardrobe branding him an interloper amongst the breezy linen and club attire of the carefree elite. The camera gazes longingly on Felix and the golden splendor of Saltburn, while often shooting Oliver in isolation or from distorting angles.
These superficial markers disguise the more profound questions Saltburn raises about identity and belonging. Oliver is neither hero nor victim; rather, he pursues his ambiguous designs through subtle manipulation. By echoing personal losses, Oliver insinuates himself into the family’s graces. Behind his familiarity, however, Oliver remains an enigma concealing uncomfortable truths – namely, an orphaned psyche desperate to construct meaning from his newfound influence.
His methods turn exploitative as his attachment to Felix clouds with lust. Their flirtatious rapport flirts with taboo, culminating in vulgar displays where sex acts as a tool for conquest and domination. Scenes of Oliver furtively lapping bathwater or trysting in a freshly-dug grave elicit visceral reactions; yet Fennell refuses easy categorization by intimating Oliver’s genuine passion beneath the performative deviance.
In parallel, Felix’s breezy charm barely conceals his innate solipsism. His family enjoys generations of unfettered privilege divorced from consequence. They collect beautiful people like ornaments to validate their self-image, discarding them once bored or threatened. This careless entitlement meets its reckoning in Oliver’s sinister social climbing. Behind Saltburn’s refined interior lies ruthless hunger for status, coupled with an addictive disdain for whoever cannot satisfy one’s needs.
Thus Saltburn savages dynastic wealth by exposing the moral decay gnawing at its gilded foundations. Oliver’s designs on Felix and his lifestyle become a distorted mirror reflecting the Catton family’s blithe selfishness. Their brand of prosperity depends upon excluding all evidence of ugliness while profiting from unseen exploitation. By contrast, Oliver weaponizes his accumulated hardship to infiltrate the fortress of elitism, shattering facades and toppling idols. Their mutually destructive tryst becomes an allegory for how class resentment turns parasitic, with those fueled by righteous anger employing the same cruel methods as their oblivious targets.
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Indulging the Senses with Decadence
Fennell deploys Saltburn’s technical elements to vividly render the sensual world of Britain’s young aristocracy. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren lenses both Oxford and the Saltburn estate as enchanted spaces of wonder, privilege, and discovery. His camera glides across the ancient university’s stoic architecture before breaking into ecstatic montages amidst Saltburn’s paradisiacal grounds. Piercing close-ups record faces stung by emotional epiphanies or carnal euphoria. Nearly every frame seduces with beauty, vibrancy and erotic intensity, placing the audience under Saltburn’s bewitching spell.
Production designer Suzie Davies concocts an atmosphere both romantic and sinister within Saltburn manor, embellishing lived-in eccentricity with baroque portraits looming over scenes like watchful sentinels. Fluid Steadicam shots slink through candlelit chambers and moonlit gardens, shaping the estate into a sanctuary of secrets and forbidden desire.
Costuming also delineates characters across societal barriers. Felix’s breezy ensembles evoke carefree royalty, while little sister Venetia weaponizes alluring yet girlish dress to bait Oliver’s attention. Elsbeth drapes herself in diaphanous couture, softening her waspish pronouncements. By contrast, Oliver blends into the background, his dark academy robes and threadbare casual wear designating his perpetual outsider status.
This visual splendor is buoyed by Fennell’s impeccable musical ear. Needle drops of beloved 2000s indie classics soundtrack sun-dappled montages, late-night revelries, and stolen intimacies. MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” ironically scores a formal tennis match with bubbly cocktails, capturing the characters’ intoxicating suspension between adolescence and adulthood. The poignant use of Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go” frames a wistful dance between new lovers, reminding Oliver and Felix of life’s fleeting beauty before fate pulls them apart.
By appealing to mood and extravagance over restraint, Saltburn’s style choices communicate sensations over intellect. We are meant to bask in Elsbeth’s charming obliviousness and the lyrical beauty surrounding her rotting values. The film wants us drunk on adolescent passion and longing, overlooking the reality that this dreamscape was constructed through oppression. Fennell excels in weaponizing spectacle to smuggle in subversion; the craft’s seductiveness makes Saltburn’s critique all the more potent once its spell collapses.
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Standout Performances Bring Saltburn to Life
Saltburn thrives on the strength of its principal cast, who inject nuance and electricity into archetypal roles. As legacy student Felix Catton, Jacob Elordi displays matinee-idol charisma leavened with childlike vulnerability. Felix coasts through life wrapped in the embrace of privilege and beauty; Elordi ensures we understand the sweet temptations of his world despite the rot at its heart. Through gentle mannerisms and wounded confusion as disaster unfolds, Elordi makes Felix sympathetic even as an embodiment of dynastic entitlement.
By contrast, Barry Keoghan taps into creepier shades of ambiguity as the cunning outsider Oliver Quick. His unsettling insinuations and stealthy obsession with Felix and his lifestyle keep the character’s motivations teasingly opaque. Oliver ingratiates and unsettles in equal measure thanks to Keoghan’s mercurial physicality and hooded stares. Between quiet menace, pitiable candor, and arresting erotic charge, Keoghan constructs a disquieting portrait of warped desire and cold opportunism.
In supporting parts, Saltburn also benefits from savvy performers knowing exactly what’s required. As Felix’s mother Elsbeth, Rosamund Pike threatens to steal her every scene, tossing off magnificently vapid pronouncements with smiling venom. Richard E. Grant leavens his considerable charm into an amusingly oblivious paterfamilias. Archie Madekwe likewise sparks bright laughs as Felix’s flamboyant cousin, using exaggerated mannerisms to puncture notions of aristocratic dignity. Throughout the ensemble, the actors smartly play archetypes with postmodern winks for a satire where no one emerges morally unscathed.
Altogether the cast strikes an ideal tonal balance between savage social commentary and escapist theatricality. Thanks to their watchability and magnetism, we become entangled byproxy in Saltburn’s world of beauty, temptation and corruption regardless of our better judgement. Our attraction and unease towards both Oliver’s mysterious agenda and Felix’s blithe privilege make their ultimate collision both cathartic and tragic.
A Frothy and Flawed Romp Through Privilege
For all its issues sticking the landing, Saltburn remains a fabulously lurid satire exploring the corrosive nature of hereditary privilege. Emerald Fennell consolidates her talents for stylized filmmaking and social commentary in her sophmore effort, even if the storytelling can’t quite keep pace with her prodigious gifts. Audiences in the mood for a titillating and arch skewering of England’s gentry class will find much to enjoy.
By weaponizing the seductive star power of Jacob Elordi and trimmings of wealth, Fennell lures us into Saltburn’s gauzy fantasy of aristocratic indulgence. Our attraction mingles with deep unease as Barry Keoghan’s unsettling interloper unravels fragility and hypocrisy beneath the characters’ refinement. The story’s late swerves into brutality feel slightly contrived, but overall Saltburn remains deliriously effective as a scabrous morality play.
With Saltburn, Fennell consolidates her aesthetic signatures from Promising Young Woman: pristinely constructed images saturated with neons and retro soundtrack cuts, disrupted by jolting injections of obscenity and violence. Seasoned supporting players like Rosamund Pike clearly relish the chance to devour sly caricatures. Compared to her restrained debut, Saltburn sees Fennell operating with increased confidence, ambition, and budget. If she still struggles to sustain momentum through to her finales, the flaws seem secondary to brazen inspiration.
For moviegoers seeking a particularly delectable strain of cinematic guilty pleasure, Saltburn should delight with glittering surfaces barely concealing ugly intentions. The film wants to immerse us in gleeful decadence before revealing the canker beneath. Uneven but undeniably bold and sensual, Saltburn heralds an emerging directorial talent mining cinema’s powers for mischief. Should Emerald Fennell hone her execution to match her daring imagination, mainstream movies will require seatbelts.
For all its issues sticking the landing, Saltburn remains a fabulously lurid satire that should delight audiences seeking a provocative and sensory cinematic romp. Uneven but undeniably bold and sensual, the film heralds Emerald Fennell as an emerging directorial talent to watch if she can hone her execution to match her daring imagination.
- Slick and visually stunning cinematography brings the privileged world to life
- Jacob Elordi is magnetic as the charming but oblivious heir Felix
- Barry Keoghan gives an unsettling and complex performance as the outsider Oliver
- Strong supporting turns from veterans like Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant
- Killer soundtrack of 2000s indie classics that perfectly captures the era
- Fennell directs with flair and vibrant energy, especially in montages
- The narrative loses momentum and coherence in the final act
- Some of the shocking moments come across as empty provocations
- Drastic character and plot shifts feel contrived to provide twists
- Fails to fully deliver on some thematic setups around identity and sexuality
- Highly derivative of previous films like The Talented Mr. Ripley