Grave fucking. A man eating semen out of a bath drain. These motifs for obsession and power — all jaw-droppingly unorthodox — are what drives Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn”into the center of the buzz on social media.
“Saltburn”follows Oliver Quick’s (Barry Keoghan) descent into an almost primal desire for wealth and power as his unhealthy and emotionally charged friendship with influential Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) develops during his stay on the family’s opulent estate, Saltburn. The film’s intrigue stems from the lengths Oliver goes through to weave his way into the lavish Catton lifestyle, seducing and manipulating the residents of Saltburn in grotesque ways.
The driving force behind “Saltburn” is its shock value, as it not only accepts but embraces the bizarre. And with scenes as appalling as the infamous graveyard scene and bathtub scene, alongside its prompt introduction onto the Amazon Prime streaming service, it didn’t take long for people to begin discussing the film on social media. While the overall message of “Saltburn” is about how the desire for wealth and power transcends social status, the conversation on social media shifted towards how that obsession manifests through actions the audience considers the pinnacle of infatuation — sex and murder, displayed in ways that almost blur the line between disturbing and comical.
The film’s popularity also boosted its soundtrack, as Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 “Murder on the Dancefloor” entered the US Billboard Top 100 after 23 years. The song’s newfound success can be tied to its popularity on social media, as thousands of people posted videos recreating Barry Keoghan’s nude dance.
One of the immediately captivating aspects of “Saltburn”is the cinematography. Shot in 35mm and on a 4:3 aspect ratio, this filming technique cements the old money aesthetic of the story: luxurious yet claustrophobic. A notable example of this is the scene where Felix leads Oliver through the manor, shot as though the audience is standing in place of Oliver, which gives you the sinking feeling of a lack of belonging to a part of the world that is so strikingly opulent. The 4:3 aspect ratio, formally known as the “Academy ratio,” is the same one that identified older movies like “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca.” This gives “Saltburn” a vintage look and furthers the feeling of luxury through the lens of generational wealth.
Though the entire cast brings on performances that are profound and memorable, the standouts of “Saltburn”are the two leads, Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi.
Keoghan does a masterful job at portraying a man possessed by desire. He expertly proves the depths of his range as a performer through his ability to slowly unwrap the layers of Quick’s character; the audience first views him as awkward yet endearing, and later as a person who is cunning and extremely conceited. Keoghan’s performance is what makes “Saltburn” tense and uneasy, as the audience’s understanding of Oliver convolutes.
Elordi, on the other hand, gives a performance that somehow personifies the idea of impossibility. Elordi manages to play Felix in a way that encapsulates the duality of his character, an exception to the stereotypes of rich people by being a genuinely kind person. An example of this is the repeated montage of Elordi as he lounges around the manor’s grounds: his mannerisms, innocent and playful while placed in such lavish settings, juxtaposes the audience in simultaneously feeling a sense of admiration for Felix and a disdain for his wealth and blissful ignorance.
Fennell’s “Saltburn”is alluring with its shock value, extravagant and vintage aesthetics and compelling performances, yet fails to deliver in social commentary.