When I left Saltburn, the second feature film from love-her-or-hate-her shock jock director Emerald Fennell, my initial thought opposed the scandalized chatter I heard while exiting the theater. “That was it?” I asked myself, and then out loud to my friend, who agreed that the film we had just seen—one that had been touted by audiences and some fellow critics as a masterclass in provocation—was pretty conventional. For my money, Saltburn is neither a film that is particularly outrageous, nor is it as second-rate as those who don’t buy into its allegedly appalling sights might like you to believe.
Make no mistake, most viewers are firmly in the first camp, judging by the reactions of every other person in my sold-out theater besides my party of two. There are a handful of scenes in Saltburn that make no attempt to hide their attempt at audience instigation, and the pearl-clutching Philistines sitting around us were lapping it up like cats at a saucer of milk, offering gasps and hushed cries of “Oh my God!” every 20 minutes. But those kinds of responses have generated an intriguing counterreaction, one that chides audiences like this for taking the bait, and in turn, scolds Fennell for making such an obvious film.
But before anyone is tried at The Hague for simply enjoying this movie—a consensus I mostly agree with—I think there’s something that both sides of this argument are glossing over: Saltburn is actually really fucking hot.
(Warning: Some spoilers for Saltburn ahead.)
It’s possible that I’m somewhat desensitized to Fennell’s style of artistic goading, but when I watched the film I was most stricken by how its writer-director was able to capture the intense eroticism of obsession. In Saltburn, Barry Keoghan’s character Oliver Quick is entranced by Felix Catton, an ultra-wealthy pretty boy played with such bewitching charm by Jacob Elordi that Oliver’s fixation becomes wholly believable. After a few trimesters spent getting closer to one another, Oliver—a downtrodden scholarship student born to working-class parents with addiction issues—takes Felix’s offer to spend his summer away from Oxford at his family’s palatial estate, Saltburn.
It’s on the grounds of Saltburn where things quickly intensify, magnified by the thick summer heat coating a centuries-old manor with no air conditioning. Like everyone else at school, Oliver is charmed by Felix, but he also sees his friend’s forthcoming nature as a way into Britain’s posh upper crust. We start to realize that Oliver may not want to be with Felix so much as he wants to become him; Oliver, afflicted by his own obsession with Felix, craves the kind of power and influence that one boy can so deftly dole out without lifting a finger.
Fennell writes with a heavy hand, there’s no denying that. But unlike her debut feature Promising Young Woman, Saltburn has a more tangible guiding force than the murkiness of rage. Oliver’s intense infatuation with Felix is the kind of base-level, fetishistic preoccupation we humans are susceptible to when someone we love and connect with on a formerly unthinkable level shines their light on us. We live and die by their attention and approval, and it’s because we’re all so vulnerable to falling into this kind of mania that Saltburn isn’t so shocking, but rather relatable.
For Oliver, this worship of Felix manifests itself in twisted, unorthodox ways. If the audience that I had seen Saltburn with had been paying more attention to Fennell’s screenplay than the film’s excessive tagline (“We’re about to all lose our minds”) or the social media gossip about what occurs in the confines of its runtime, their reactions might not have been so over-the-top.
When Oliver leans down to put his mouth to a bathtub drain to drink some of Felix’s cum-filled bathwater, the pair of women sitting next to me curled into fetal positions in their seats. “Oh, no no! Don’t do it!” they cried, growing louder as Keoghan’s mouth drew closer to the drain. It was at this point that my friend (another gay guy similarly burdened by a heart too romantic) and I looked at each other and knew that we were in a very different state of mind than the people surrounding us. I can’t imagine watching a man drink another man’s bathwater and think it’s anything other than utterly poetic. Is this not the kind of all-consuming desire that Shakespeare wrote tragedies about? Has society gone chaste to the warmth of human touch in favor of the cold, digital glow of the blue light?
More nervous giggles, affected gasps, and disgusted cries followed throughout the remainder of the film. There was a round robin of, “Oh, Jesus, ohh!” when Oliver pleasures Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) while she has her period, and when he cries and then begins to fuck Felix’s gravesite after his friend’s untimely death. These reactions didn’t annoy me so much as they fascinated me. I began to wonder how this theatrical audience would respond if the Alamo Drafthouse staff announced they’d be playing a free double feature of Eyes Wide Shut after the Saltburn credits rolled. I consider that movie to be less shocking than terrifying. Would this crowd? I’m not convinced these audience gawkers have been to a movie theater since Barbie, read anything besides TikTok captions, or engage in any coitus beyond passionless missionary sex they speed through to get to the couch in time for Below Deck.
Now, I can certainly understand why all of these scenes seem shocking. Fennell presents them in a manner in which she intends to surprise you; she protracts these miniature climactic punches so they punctuate a drawn-out scene where the viewer is waiting to see what might happen. The audience is merely taking the bait. But what’s curious to me is why this reaction is so overblown. It’s as if everyone in the theater needed to let everyone around them know: “I’d never do something like that! I think this is twisted, disgusting, and vile. And because I think those things, criticism cannot be hurled at me for thinking otherwise. I am safe in the court of public opinion”
I guess it’s my responsibility to hurl that criticism, then. There’s a reason you have to be 17 to get into an R-rated movie, and it’s because they aren’t for children. Being so hypersensitive to a film like this and squirming in your seat is juvenile, like giggling during the mandatory sex ed videotape in sixth grade. Those reactions should be reserved for horror movies, where those things are appropriate.
Simply digesting a piece of art without an outsized physical and vocal reaction doesn’t mean that you’re a pervert, and neither does identifying with the magnitude of Oliver’s fixation. I’m not saying I would do any of the things that Oliver does in Saltburn, or that anything he does is necessarily just or right. But, in my lowest states of purely inhuman obsession, would I have been reduced to similarly degrading acts had the circumstances presented themselves? It’s not impossible.
There’s a twisted, feverish romance to all of these “shocking” sights, and viewers who consider themselves above them—and above all of Fennell’s work on some thin principle—come off just as dull as those who react with virtuous offense. Social media has derided Fennell for trying too hard and ribbing viewers for reactions. No doubt, her filmmaking absolutely does both of these things. But the package in which she presents this wannabe edgy material is consistently fascinating.
Saltburn is not a movie that’s completely toothless, just one that has had its incisors shaved down so it doesn’t draw blood. This wisely leaves more room for the elegiac poeticism in its screenplay, which is what some audiences perceive as provocative and nasty and others are rebelling against. Either way, there’s a fear of engaging with the material in a human way, trying to identify with the characters and understand why they do what they do. Like Fennell, it seems, they are drawn to these controversial things because of an almost animalistic need to fulfill their desire by consuming the world around them until there’s nothing left, no matter what that entails. There’s nothing more disturbingly beautiful than that.