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Saltburn review — A horny, homoerotic, beautiful mess

REVIEW BY KEMARI BRYANT @KEMARITB


2022 was the year of the Eat-the-rich film, a popular trend that has spread across film and television criticizing, and at times satirizing, class divides and capitalistic structures. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was an intelligent, nuanced look at class conflict and wealth disparity, and its Best Picture win at the 92nd Academy Awards would be followed by many filmmakers crafting their takes on these themes. Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, Mark Mylod’s The Menu, and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (Palme d’Or winner) are all 2022’s take, and all feature intense power struggles between the working class and the rich — and oftentimes, unlike real life, ending up with the former on top.


Saltburn is both the latest film from writer-director Emerald Fennell and the latest entry in Eat-the-rich discourse — and a decidedly confused one, at that. The film is a visual marvel: for just north of two hours the audience is attacked with some of the most arresting and daring images I’ve seen all year. Her sophomore project boasts an undoubtedly confident directorial voice that has evolved immensely since Promising Young Woman. Alongside cinematographer Linus Sandgren (of 2022’s divisive Babylon) she plays with stunning montages and expressionistic representation of character state through reflection, orientation, and kaleidoscopic imagery. The pair capture the world of the bourgeoisie and sexuality with immense beauty that is left to be coveted. However, the weakness lies in confusing morals, unnecessary twists, and a third act with many thematic issues.


Our first taste of Saltburn comes as we are introduced to Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan), a well-dressed man reflecting to an unseen character about his old college days. “I wasn’t in love with him,” Oliver makes very clear, “I loved him, of course.” The “him” in question? Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton, Oliver’s wealthy former classmate who also acts as the image of all things masculine and beautiful. This is made clear in the way he’s photographed throughout the picture: his staggering frame always fills the shot, him lying in a claw foot bathtub, a lens picking up sweat on the back of his neck — and Oliver is always nearby, gazing admirably. Or obsessively? Thus, our story begins.



The first hour is a high-octane and stylistic look into the relationship between two men with a vast class difference — Oliver is shy, nerdy and only attends Cambridge on a scholarship, while Felix is painted as the coolest guy in the world, and comes from bountiful wealth. The film is soaked in an indication of its mid-aughts setting; people perform “Apple Bottoms” at karaoke, everyone smokes indoors, and at one point a family is gathered around the television watching Superbad. Fennell paints a millennial portrait of students in 2006, a ghostly reflection of the time she attended Cambridge herself.


It is only when we arrive at the titular estate that the extent of sexuality and power are fully put on display. The cast of characters comes into play with sickening charm, an impressive ensemble that elevates the film: Archie Madekwe impresses as the Catton’s bitchy American cousin, Farleigh. He is bi-racial which gives way to some sloppy discourse on how race relates to the overarching themes. Rosamund Pike is a scene stealer as the admittedly vapid matriarch, Elsbeth. The two actors are highlights and have the biggest laughs in the film, while also holding down an essential emotional core and groundedness.



The real revelation here is Jacob Elordi, who rises above the rest, figuratively and literally, as a true standout and rising star. This, along with Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, should cement Elordi as a bonafide star. It helps that the film is primarily interested in Felix — much of the runtime is outside parties gawking over him, him strolling around the estate shirtless, or just being outrageously charming. Fennell’s script also gives him the easiest time, neither over or underwriting the character which allows Elordi to do his work and make the character fly. The opposite can be said for Keoghan, whose extremely nuanced and understated performance in the first half of the film is completely tanked by the script's overwriting of the character in the second half. Still, Keoghan does a fantastic job with an almost interesting character and proves, if nothing, his bread and butter is in playing weird little freaks.


Fennell’s portrayal of their relationship is an intriguing subversion of films shot through the male gaze, focusing instead on the male body, masculinity, and intense homo-eroticism. But unfortunately there lies the beginning and end of impactful subversion. What becomes clear is that this is Fennell’s take on The Talented Mr. Ripley, albeit a far less subtle version of the well-known tale. The script tries to form its own voice by adding plot points that detract from the intended message and over-explaining things that are already so clear.


The screenplay is a detriment to Saltburn. The film sets us up for such a fun, sexy time only to leave you with unneeded shock and eye rolls. It attempts to say something poignant about class but the shock and awe do nothing but muddle the thematic purpose. For a moment there is a glimpse of a new take on the Eat-the-rich film, an exploration of sex juxtaposed with power and how someone in a lower class could intentionally use sexuality to work their way through a system when they have nothing else at their disposal. But, unfortunately, that thread is dropped in exchange for a more uninteresting version of something we’ve seen. Much like the lifestyle of the über-rich characters that occupy it, Saltburn is beautiful, and fun to watch, but empty.




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