New ReleasesReviews

Written by:

Saltburn, the sophomore film from Promising Young Woman writer/director Emerald Fennell, quickly became one of the most talked-about films of 2023. For some the cutthroat class parable was relatively vanilla, for others it was rampant filth. Debates about its High-Brow or Low-Brow aspirations became mind-numbing whilst contrarian arguments blossomed from the fertile grounds of shock, awe, adoration, and hatred, poisoning the well of discourse. All of a sudden Saltburn became a litmus test for boundaries and cinematic experience. The viewership was split into the morally repugnant weirdos who enjoyed it, the casual viewer who found it a grotesque slice of insanity, and the too-cool-for-school film buffs who laughed at its apparent shock-factor.

Without a jot of self-awareness, audiences everywhere and, more pressingly, the online film community quickly self-arranged into an actual hierarchy of cinematic experience and taste. Saltburn, the institution, came to life.

The truth of the matter is that Saltburn is a high camp hoot with a touch of the Gothic and a hefty dose of (laughably taboo) bodily fluids. Hedonistic and delectable, its humour is acidic, and the twists devious. Anyone looking for class commentary will leave hungry beyond a simplistic piss-take of the anti-social elite, upper class apathy, and a scathing review of middle-class poverty performativity. That’s not what we’re here for though. We’re here for homo-eroticism, perverse obsession, full frontal, oral sex in the moonlight, cummy bathwater, Machiavellian manipulation, and millennial bops against the grand gilded backdrop of a stately home.

Films about the filthy rich balk at opulence yet can’t help revelling in the undeniable magnetism of it. A fact Fennell embraces. Linus Sandgren’s seductive cinematography with its 4:3 aspect ratio puts us in a voyeuristic position: we are here to visit, to peep, but for us the adventure is finite. Like Barry Keoghan’s class tourist Oliver Quick we are entranced by the world, its baubles and lights, the sheer grandeur of its halls and the alluring beauty of its blissful seclusion. Perhaps obsessively so. Fennell takes us on Saltburn safari, finding exuberant elitism and dangerous sexuality at every turn whilst serving it up in all its shameless glory, but our involvement in that world is on borrowed time.

Maybe it’s the nostalgia for the student lifestyle and mid 2000’s that Fennell conjures. 2006 feels like a comparatively care-free time in 2023; no social media and almost zero involvement of mobile phones. The messy bliss of the university experience along with that less tech-heavy time is, for most people watching, a distant memory. We go into Saltburn and are immediately invited to mourn those lost days. Between crushes, flings, jealousy, sex, drugs, booze, the insular nature of campus, and the dangerous potential of new friends there’s a feeling that everything is going to go very wrong very quick. Which it does.

The menagerie of dysfunctional characters is more human than they first appear and the cast who flesh them out are in on the joke. There’s the tone-defining humour of Rosamund Pike, one of Richard E. Grant’s finest turns in years, Paul Rhys’ impeccably eerie butler, the list goes on. Anthony Willis provides a gorgeous near-operatic score which projects the drama of the surround and can, at the drop of a body or the coming of night, take on such cold ominous tones it flirts quite obscenely with horror. Its a mood shifft which occurs often each time the film embraces its Gothic undertones and reminds us of its psych-thriller origins. That flippancy of genre and consistency of humour is Fennell’s golden gun.

If Muriel Spark had written an episode of Skins, it might look something like Saltburn. Its simultaneously sexy, sadistic, and silly. Its power lies in humour and absolute lack of subtlety, its draw in the promise of macabre chaos. If it belongs anywhere Saltburn sits proudly aside Mark Mylod’s The Menu, another equally accomplished, seemingly conceited, but enjoyably daft affair. Where The Menu offered up a platter of palatable pretension, Saltburn revels in pretension-by-proxy. Its characters, world, and flourishes of bizarre shock invoke the air of the arthouse, but its cast, hype, and wide release betray the heart of an off-kilter mainstream experience. Either way its pretty incredible to see a film with such latent deviant behaviour get so much attention. Even more incredible, though, is the frankly insidious way it shaped its own discourse.


Scott Clark

Dir. Emerald Fennell

Stars. Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwi, Alison Oliver

Comments are closed.

Verified by ExactMetrics