The epic scale of wealth commandeered by today’s super-rich has given cinema a prime source of villainy. One film that purports to take the boots to the billionaires is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature Saltburn.
On the surface, there are a great many things that entice about the film. It’s bubbling over with style, filled to the brim with thespian showmanship and helmed by a controversial auteur.
Fennell is a filmmaker with the unique ability to provoke. In Promising Young Woman, her 2020 thriller/crime debut, the war between the sexes got down and dirty with a vendetta carried out by the central character who set out single-handedly to take down predatory men with only her wits. At the time of its release, Promising Young Woman created a bit of a furor for its depiction of toxic romantic relationships.
Fennell draws considerable internet rancour not only for her work, but seemingly because she is proper posh herself. Having been helped in her ambition by money and privilege, she makes the rich her target.
With Saltburn, Fennell seems bound and determined to up the ante. And yet, when you’re done watching, you may wonder whether the director is truly committed to filleting and serving up her own class. Whether that tension makes the film less or more satisfying will depend on your taste for ambiguity.
Quick to rise
On the face of things, this is the story of a would-be social climber with the on-the-nose name of Oliver Quick. (Charles Dickens is probably spinning like a rotisserie chicken in his final resting place.) Something of an unreliable narrator, Oliver is telling his own story, talking about events that he not only lived through but also orchestrated.
A scholarship student at Oxford, Oliver arrives on the first day wearing the full kit: an embroidered tie, a jacket with a crest and a scarf in the school colours. The year is 2006, which is when Fennell herself was attending Oxford, so there is something of direct experience in these opening scenes.
In his naked need to be part of things, Oliver is immediately derided for being a poncey wiener. But who exactly this young man is takes the better part of two hours to fully expose. I use the word with good reason. There is a fair helping of full frontal in the film, but that is perhaps the least provocative thing about it.
Even as he is trying to fit in by befriending other nerds and wandering lonely as a cloud through Oxford’s hallowed halls, Oliver is hard at work. He wants a way up and out of his social misfit-ery and finds it in the form of one Felix Catton. Effortlessly charming, ridiculously handsome and obscenely wealthy, Felix is everything that Oliver is not. At first things go swimmingly for the new friends with heaps of drinking and parties, but soon Felix’s interest in his new pal appears to wane.
In desperation or maybe something a bit more Machiavellian, Oliver discloses a family tragedy and gets an invitation to Saltburn, the Catton family home, for the summer. Saltburn is a stately manor that would put Mr. Darcy’s shades of Pemberley to shame. The place is stuffed to the gills with everything that money can buy and a lot of what it can’t, namely taste, history and acceptance. In this way, the house is as much a character as the people who reside inside it.
Once in situ, Oliver sets about carrying out his agenda. First, he appears to attempt to seduce the entire Catton clan. The film takes its sweet time introducing each member of the family. Resplendent in their honeyed money and careless ways with the world and each other, they are all a bit detestable but also great fun to watch. As the schemer with a heart of coal, actor Barry Keoghan brings everything he has to the character of Oliver, with his hooded eyes, flop of hair and not inconsiderable penis. But he is easily outshone by the Cattons, blessed with not only wealth but also something more incalculable: belonging.
In his quest, Oliver works his way into the graces of almost every family member. He bones up on obscure ceramists to charm the family patriarch. In other instances, there’s plain old boning, starting with Felix’s younger sister Venetia before he moves on to cousin Farleigh.
Saltburn matriarch Elspeth Catton, played to icy-blond perfection by Rosamund Pike, proves an instant pushover. A little light flattery and some tasty gossip and she takes to Oliver like a long-lost son. The only person in the entire household who seems to be aware of what Oliver is up to is the family butler, who affixes the interloper with a jaundiced gaze. It’s a shame that the film sets up this seeming battle of two particularly perceptive men and then fails to do much with it.
The first half of the film takes time and care, but as Oliver’s schemes begin to kick into gear, things go awry. Narrative coherence and even consistency go sailing out the window, as Oliver’s mask of innocence slips off and the true motivating force of his machinations is revealed. Here is also where the film loses track of who is really the villain and who are the victims. Echoes abound throughout the film but especially in the third act, as the earlier scenes of Oliver’s introduction to Saltburn are replayed, albeit in different fashion.
The laziness of this final act is a bit of a shame. The film is never less than watchable, but its increasing fuzziness takes the bite out of the social satire that Fennell is trying to fashion. Ultimately, it’s like being gummed to death. Not the worst way to go, but as the lady of the house, Elspeth Catton, remarked about her brief dalliance with sleeping with other women, “it’s all a bit too wet.”
A film genre for our times
At first glance, Saltburn appears that it will fall firmly in the camp of “eat the rich.” But despite their vanity and self-absorption, the family members seem more lost than outright evil. Other, far smarter films (like Parasite) have plumbed this territory with greater wit and precision, but the film comes at a moment when the plunder and predation of the super-wealthy have come under increased scrutiny.
The price paid to allow in excess of 700 billionaires to ply the planet for their continued enrichment and entertainment is one thing, but as a number of recent articles have pointed out, there used to be a more reciprocal relationship between the “have-nots” and the “have-way-too-much.”
The rich used to offset their vast wealth through doing some public good, like funding art galleries and building infrastructure. Although in recent years, as with the notorious Sackler family, this hasn’t worked as easily as it did in the days of the Rothschilds and Rockefellers.
For all its provocation and style, a profound emptiness pervades Saltburn. The gilt-bedecked rooms and endless hallways of the estate are stuffed with precious artifacts. The careless rich are taken apart. But exactly what is Oliver’s motivation? Acceptance, love, revenge or just real estate? The film could be read as a perverse inversion of a Jane Austen novel, wherein the protagonist is elevated to romantic bliss as well as a healthy dose of wealth and property. Yo, Pemberley!
But even more troubling is the moral complicity. For all of his shortcomings and violent ways, Oliver is strangely understandable in his love, hate and endless thrall to the wealthy, even as they slurp down the world with their unslakable appetite for luxury and ease.
‘Saltburn’ is now screening in major theatres.
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