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Broad Strokes in a Shallow Bathtub: the Gilded Splendor of 'Saltburn'

For only having made two films, director Emerald Fennell knows how to get audiences talking. Her 2020 debut Promising Young Woman was fairly controversial due to what some considered to be poor handling of sensitive subject matter, but it demonstrated a lot of potential. Her latest release, Saltburn, is a similarly frustrating watch. It features nonstop eroticism and sex, which Fennell has taken in stride. She also made the wise decision of casting two of Hollywood’s most promising and attractive young actors to partake in such acts, which has only made the film’s online discourse more potent.  


The movie centers around Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a brilliant social outcast who claims to have a dark past involving drug-addicted parents and poverty. While attending Oxford University, he quickly befriends Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a popular and wealthy man who feels bad for Oliver due to his tragic upbringing. After the school year ends, Felix invites Oliver to live with him in his family’s grand estate called Saltburn. What ensues is a summer full of excess, obsession and destruction.


Fennell isn’t only eager to shock, but she does see the fun in it. Seeing Saltburn in a theater and hearing audible moans in reaction to Barry Keoghan doing unspeakable acts of depravity can be amusing depending on the scene. Without going into spoilers, the film’s final scene is not only hilarious but also a thoughtful juxtaposition to the one that opens the movie. 


Saltburn’s shock does give way to the film's best highlights, specifically in the much-discussed “bathtub scene,” but some bits of Fennell’s vulgarity prove unsuccessful. In particular, there’s a scene in which Keoghan does something vile to a pile of dirt (I’m trying my best not to spoil the film, but there are only so many places one’s mind can go). That scene represented a lot of my negative thoughts on the movie. The sequence’s imagery is memorable, and the literal meaning behind it is interesting, but much like a lot of Saltburn, it’s unable to escape the weight of its pointlessness. 


There’s a time and place for dumb shlock. Filmmakers like John Waters and Harmony Korine have made careers of it. That’s not to say their films are meaningless (quite the opposite, in fact), but they can be enjoyed purely for their shock value. Fennell, however, approaches this story with an undeserved self-importance. She’s reaching for something deeper to blow audiences away. What that “something” may be is unclear to me.


Is it a criticism of wealth and privilege in the UK, is it an exercise in shocking eroticism, or is it a film about obsessive love? Fennell’s answer would probably be all three, and while there’s a lot of genuine merit in her approach to eroticism, her class commentary is misguided and confusing, and Oliver’s obsession with Felix doesn’t say much of anything. 


In the film, the audience witnesses Oliver act immorally toward the Catton family for no good reason. It’s difficult to side with Oliver, simply because the Catton family isn’t particularly evil. They’re just quirky and eccentric, and their intentions aren’t nearly as malicious as Oliver's. I truly believe that Fennell is trying to criticize the wealthy, but it rarely comes off that way. 


Bearing in mind his most recent output, anyone can see that Barry Keoghan has proven himself to be a talented young actor. The character of Oliver would be a daunting task for any actor to take on, but not only did Keoghan accept the challenge, he approached it with an awe-inspiring level of confidence that is impossible not to appreciate. People will leave this film knowing far more about Keoghan than they would have expected (or perhaps hoped for) going in, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.


Despite the numerous issues to be had with Saltburn, it is a fun watch. The movie's more shocking moments are entertaining, and the movie rocks a mid-2000s aesthetic that is unique and cool. The film will appeal to the “Euphoria crowd” with its luxurious cinematography and extravagant party scenes that are undeniably attractive. Despite how the 1:33:1 aspect ratio serves no real purpose, it does look beautiful. 


Perhaps the deeper meaning behind Saltburn is the lack of meaning. Maybe the film is about the pointlessness of the life of excess that wealth can bring, no matter how alluring it is. However, I have a hard time believing that that was the intent here. There’s too much filler that proves otherwise, even if the film is best enjoyed on a surface level. It’s a shame that a talented filmmaker like Fennell isn’t spending more time fleshing out her ideas. She has all the tools she needs to make a great film; she just doesn’t quite know how to use them.


-Oliver

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