Saltburn Doesn't Hate the Rich
It hates the social climbers.
I know I promised to leave you all alone for the holiday week…but I just got a ton of screeners since I’m in a critics group now. I figured I’d watch a couple and write about them since writing about things is what I do, more or less.
I chose Saltburn pretty much by accident, but it turns out it’s out on wide release literally today! The whole plot’s on Wikipedia since it’s been screened at festivals, but fwiw, there are going to be some SPOILERS ahead. Be warned.
At first Saltburn presents itself as a kind of pop amalgam of Fitzgerald and Henry James, in which a young man of modest means falls in love and lust and jealousy with the golden power of a wealthy classmate. That’s just a feint though. Director Emerald Lilly Fennell is a lot less interested in exploring the foibles and glamour of the rich than she is in leaning into anxieties about social climbing upstarts and sinister bisexuals.
The film starts in 2006, as Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) begins his term as a freshman at Oxford University. Oliver is awkward and comes, we’re told, from a poor family—he’s a scholarship student with few friends.
Until, that is, he helps the wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) when his bicycle breaks down. Felix adopts Oliver, comforts him when Oliver tells him of his father’s death and his mother’s addiction, and eventually invites him to his estate, Saltburn, for the summer.
And here’s where the SPOILERS come in if you care about that sort of thing.
While Oliver is at Saltburn, we slowly learn that everything we thought we knew about him is false. He’s not a sad sack poor boy who lacks social skills; he’s not struggling with a confused homosexual crush on Felix. He’s a manipulative liar who deliberately insinuates himself into the Catton home, turning the family against other hangers on—like poor relation Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). He seduces everyone of every gender who gets in his way, and worse than seduces them.
The Catton’s are portrayed as pathologically uptight and condescending. Rosamund Pike as mother Elsbeth is a thin, perfectly made up geyser of condescension and narcissim. She natters on about how she hates ugly people, says her friend killed herself for attention; and won’t change lunchtime no matter the trauma. Sir James (Richard E. Grant) is less callous but more disconnected, and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) is a spiraling mess of eating disorders and ill-advised sexual impulses.
Felix, though, remains Felix; he can be a little selfish, and his eagerness to help can be cloying, but these are relatively minor sins—especially when compared to Oliver’s. The wealthy may be out of it and kind of awful, but the real villain of the piece is the upstart who wants what they have. Saltburn gleefully embraces the worst stereotypes about scheming, untrustworthy bisexuals and the scheming untrustworthy poors—the latter of which are defined by their deceitful pretense that they’re worse off than they are. Oliver, who is shown several times with full frontal nudity, is insistently sexualized. He’s the corrupting femme fatale, all the more sinister because the gender is wrong.
Comparisons to The Talented Mr. Ripley are inevitable. But the film Saltburn most reminded me of was the sleazy noir Wild Things, which also (not coincidentally) ends with a long sequence of retroactive flashbacks explaining how the plot you thought you saw was not the plot at all. The difference is that Wild Things presents all its characters as greedy power-hungry schemers; the rich, the cops, the lawyers, the people with power are all just as desperate and vicious as Suzie (Neve Campbell), the trailer trash with her eye on the main chance. When Suzie wins, it’s not because she’s corrupted the social order or fooled the unwitting oligarchs with her bisexual wiles. It’s because she’s played the game of power better than they have despite starting off with a worse hand.
Saltburn’s not set in the sticky Florida swampland like Wild Things, though. The action is mostly on that beautiful English estate, with everything in place—Shakespeare folios on the shelves, priceless plates on display, sweeping lawns kept trimmed just so. Saltburn, the estate, is a paradise—until the snake infiltrates it, in the form of that wily, tempting, faux polite, and wretchedly lower-class Oliver. It’s true that his plots don’t really make sense, and the narrative turns into a farrago of nonsense. But that’s kind of the point. You let the hoi polloi in, everything—truth, sexual mores, family rituals, screenwriting—goes to hell.
Noirs are always ambivalent about their corrupting antiheroes. You could argue that you’re supposed to hate to love Oliver the way you’re supposed to hate to love Amy in Gone Girl. And maybe that was the intention. Fennell very much fails to stick the landing, though, and the extent of Oliver’s degradation (including an already infamous graveyard scene) is too elaborate and grotesque to be even a twisted triumph. Oliver’s desire for wealth is framed as disgusting; he’s deviant, evil, deceitful in a way that the legacy wealthy are not. As a result, Saltburn comes across not primarily as a satire of the upper-class, but as a warning about the (too smart, too sexual, insufficiently heterosexual) rabble.
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