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  • Writer's picturezandaleeindigo

Saltburn and a Lack of Earnestness in Eroticism

Months ago, I was in the theater seeing Bottoms or Talk to Me or something when I saw the trailer for Emerald Fennell's Saltburn for the first time. The title caught my attention first, the cinematography and striking images got me next, and then as I wrapped my head around the story I found myself wondering, "Isn't this just The Talented Mr. Ripley again?"

Now, I watched The Talented Mr. Ripley for the first time this year. I went into it completely blind only assuming it would be some sort of boring drama from the cover I'd seen in passing scrolling through Letterboxd. I was blown away. I wrote a silly little log about "disaster gay representation" and couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. It was a film that fully immersed the audience into the world that our protganist,Tom, so desperately wanted to be apart of and while the audience knows he has done some unforgivable things, we can't help but wait with baited breath hoping he somehow gets away with it. It probably also helped that it was based on a book.

My love for Mr. Ripley made me, at the very least, reluctant to see Saltburn. Coupled with my familiarity with Emerald Fennell's work--I am not a huge fan-and the fact that I felt the title was a bit silly. But in the weeks following the release I was innundated with interview clips and articles feautiring the two main actors, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan (who I am a fan of) and their rapport and natural chemistry made me wonder how Fennell's take on a homoerotic friendship gone wrong would fare. So, I bought a ticket.

Their press did all the heavy lifting I'm so serious

And in true Emerald Fennell fashion the movie was very different than I'd expected...but not in any meaningfully subversive way. Oliver Quick, played by Barry Keoghan (a subsitute for Tom Ripley), is a mild mannered boy who has a rough homelife who meets the charismatic Felix Catton (Dickie Greenleaf's tethered) while attending Oxford college. At the end of the year, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer with his family at their home in Saltburn and tensions rise.

At the outset of the film the plot seems explicitly straight forward. The whole thing begins with Oliver's voiceover explaining that he wasn't "in love" with Felix even though he did love him, and we're treated to a montage of Elordi looking as heartthrob-y as humanly possible. When the two boys meet it's clear that Oliver is in awe of Felix and enjoys being around him an almost inordinate amount. Comparitively, a similiar foundation is laid at the beginning of The Talented Mr. Ripley. While it is less overt, we don't begin with a voiceover hinting at Tom's eventual turn, it was clear to me earlier in the film that there was a stronger attraction between Tom and Dickie that was more than friendship.

The heartthrob in question

And I would say the first third of the movie is the most successful in Saltburn's case. While it is a bit predictable the characters seem to have solid motiviations, clear relationships, and defined personalities. It's a shame once the boys go to Saltburn most of those things go out the window.

Oliver quickly goes from a shy and awkward reluctant house guest to a sort of succubus, using his innate sexual prowess to get each of the members of the Catton family to bend to his will. The first instance of this is a drawn out garden sequence between him and Felix's sister Venetia, Oliver uses the power of his tongue to get her to curb her eating disorder. A scene that in itself is not inherently bad, in fact it was a good amount of twisted and exciting and I wondered if it would lead to a sort of messed up love triangle between them and Felix as we later learn Felix would not be happy to find out Oliver was interested in his sister. But no, the thread is dropped almost as soon as it began.

Later, we begin to see more overt tension between Oliver and Felix's cousin, Farleigh, who'd been antagonizing him because of his class for most of the movie. This moment was especially interesting to me because the actors had incredible chemistry and the love/hate relationship between the two offered an interesting dynamic that deviates from The Talented Mr. Ripley-esque plot I expected. There's an especially steamy scene where after Farleigh humiliates him at a gathering, Oliver sneaks into his room and gets Farleigh to submit to him. It's a scene I think works quite well and I was interested to see where it would build to and then--surprise! It also goes nowhere. It's actually never talked about again and Farleigh just goes right back to bullying Oliver, which is baffling to me.

Archie Madekwe (Farleigh) was also woefully underused in this

As the movie continues it becomes more and more obvious that Oliver just does incredibly bizarre things for fun--minus the infamous bathtub scene, I actually like that one. There's even a moment when he openly flirts with Felix's mother (another thread that doesn't really go anywhere) and it culminates in a big reveal that gets us into act three.

Felix, who at this point I kind of forgot was meant to be the focal point of the film, wants to surprise Oliver for his birthday by reuniting him with his mother. It's here he discovers Oliver's been lying about his home life and Felix, feeling betrayed, tells him he must leave the next day. Oliver feels slighted by this and the two get into a verbal fight that night. The next day, Felix is mysteriously dead.

The last twenty minutes or so of the movie are absurd. A series of events occur and the wealthy family begins to be picked off one by one, first Farleigh is banished, then Venetia dies. Over a decade later Felix's father kicks the bucket, Oliver reconnects with Felix's mother and then a second reveal shows us that Oliver was evil and scheming to obtain Saltburn the entire movie, systematically killing each of the Cattons, and he finally pulls the plug on the mom.

Tfw you flirt with the boy you're pining after's mom

This is another plot that would be sufficient for a thriller, if it made any sense at all with the rest of the film so far. I struggle to grapple with my thoughts on this movie because I am no erotic thriller expert, I've just seen a good amount of them. And while I believe that protagnaists can just be evil for evils sake and that a lot of the erotic scenes in this film work on their own, as a cohesive story you cannot convince me this movie knew what it wanted to be.

It felt like it was marketed as a homoerotic film about this tumultious friendship between two boys of different social classes and then halfway through the film that relationship is thrown away for Oliver to decide to have sex with every member of the Catton family. He only remenbers that he cares about Felix in time to do some shocking things to his grave and then by the end his only motivation is money?

And I continuously compare this to The Talented Mr. Ripley because that film and others like it have some semblance of earnestness within them that allows us to buy in to all the psychosexual thriller elements. At his core Tom is a closeted gay man that doesn't know how to express/process those feelings and while as a result of those things he is an absolute menace to society and engages in some unbelivably reckless behavior, it is rooted in something.

Saltburn's Oliver Quick cannot say the same. He's nothing but evil, all shock and awe and while maybe the rich family's wealth and attitude makes them despicable enough that we don't care that they're dead, Oliver as a character hardly does anything to warrant our sympathy or even our understanding of any of his motivation to aquire this wealth.

Which is such a shame because as I've said, there are seeds of a compelling film here. Sequences that I enjoyed, solid performances, and beautiful cinematography. Unfortunately, the writing fell short and felt...hollow. Almost like Saltburn and the people who inhabit it, a grandiose estate with an enticing facade that lacks substance and fails to make you feel anything real.

Funnily enough, I thought the ending was one of the most interesting and enjoyable scenes because it leaned into the absurdity. If the rest of the movie did the same...maybe we'd have something.

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Dec 20, 2023

A solid exploration of a movie that I haven't seen, but I feel like I can relate to the arguments on their face.

--As I have mentioned before, I absolutely loved your closing sentences, as they carry us on into the next idea nicely. Also, the use of "succubus" made my heart sing.

Thanks for continually displaying your worldview of film to the rest of us. 🙌🏾

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