Courtesy of Prime Video

January 29, 2024

Substance in the Small Details of ‘Saltburn’

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Many dismissed Emerald Fennell’s second film Saltburn as being “boring” and “empty.” My response to these comments: If this was your take on Saltburn, I don’t think you were paying close enough attention. Saltburn is filled with precise details, many of which I didn’t even appreciate until I had watched the movie a second time.

Fennell first takes us to Oxford University in the early 2000s. Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan) is a new student at Oxford at the time, struggling to fit in with his peers. Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi) becomes the object of Oliver’s attention, and the object of the film’s eye. To Oliver, Felix represents the highest echelon of the British upper class, and serves as a source of intrigue and desire. Through many calculated attempts to gain Felix’s favor, Oliver squirms his way into Felix’s inner circle. After a sudden tragedy strikes Oliver’s family, Felix offers him an invitation to his family’s estate, which bears the same name as the movie.

At Saltburn, everything starts to unravel.

The decadence of the Saltburn estate is what really captured my attention. It is colossal, for one thing. It is also eccentric and rather enigmatic. Drawing from Greek mythology, the estate includes a giant labyrinth, with a brooding minotaur statue in the center.

The Catton family is as outlandish as Saltburn itself. Elspeth, the Catton family matriarch, is shallow yet also seems saccharinely sweet, something that the viewer soon learns is often inauthentic. The patriarch of the Catton family seems and looks aloof, with his hair constantly alive and upright.

There are fleeting moments when the viewer thinks things might just work out. One of my favorite sequences in the movie is accompanied by MGMT’s “Time to Pretend.” In this sequence, Oliver, Felix, Venetia (Felix’s sister) and Farleigh Start (the cousin of Felix and Venetia) tan in the tall, yellow grass, drift in the lily pond and play drunk tennis. In this sequence they soak up a Saltburn summer, and the vibes feel perfect.

Yet, despite the Cattons’ gross wealth, there are many signs of Saltburn’s decay. In some parts, the lawn is dead and overgrown. Further, Venetia’s hair is constantly unkempt and her eyeliner is perpetually smudged. Saltburn seems over-the-top, but not classy.

The hard-to-watch, TikTok-viral moments of the movie are what propel Oliver’s character development. In solitude, the viewer can see Oliver’s true self more clearly. These moments are when we most clearly see Oliver’s desire for Felix. Barry Keoghan’s ability to maintain composure and commit to bizzare scenes made me appreciate him as an actor.

Despite Oliver’s overall detachment, there were moments when I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. For one thing, he is the subject of Farleigh’s cruel jabs that serve to constantly remind him that he will never belong at Saltburn. Moreover, at his own birthday party, one of the film’s busiest scenes, people walk past him without even noticing his presence, and sing “Happy Birthday” without knowing his name.  

The members of the Catton family are like specimens to Oliver — subjects of intrigue and study. Throughout the movie, he gains an understanding of them and garners their trust and affection.

As the film unfolds, so too does Oliver’s facade. In one pivotal moment involving a visit to Oliver’s family, Oliver’s deceit is laid bare. It’s at this moment the pace of the movie quickens toward inexorable doom.

It is difficult to determine what the most disturbing element of the film is. For me, this was the shallowness and apparent callowness of the Catton family. Despite the easy-going and friendly appearance of Elspeth and Sir James (the heads of the Catton family), they hardly seem sentimental at tragic moments. 

I think these moments, displaying an absolute omission of feeling, are where Emerald Fennell says the most as a filmmaker. This is where the true impact of Saltburn hits hard.

Lena Thakor is a Junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]