Saltburn: Taking obsession to the grave

Screengrab from MGM Studios’ Saltburn Trailer/YouTube

MANOR HOUSES, in all their external allure, attract hungry pursuers driven to madness by avarice — the proverbial root of evil. 

These obsessed conquerors peek through the high-rise windows, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting owners. They scheme to take the wealth and beauty of the structures’ embellishments, even if it leads to fatal consequences.

In its carnal portrayal of obsession and privilege, Saltburn left a shocking yet fleeting sting to dislodge viewers from comfort, rendering them unable to shake it off until the film ends. 

The film, which premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival in 2023, is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

With Academy Award-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s acclaimed direction and writing, the film’s overall execution has been positively received by critics and audiences. Saltburn has been nominated for Best Picture at the Critic’s Choice Movie Award. Rosamund Pike, who played Elspeth Catton, and Barry Keoghan, who played the protagonist, were nominated at the 81st Golden Globes Award for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor, respectively.

Screengrab from MGM Studios’ Saltburn Trailer/YouTube

From the beginning, the gothic themes in the film’s opening sequence hint at the horrors looming over the entire plot. Such a foreshadowing was evident in the intricately designed title card consisting of a custom blood-red serif font set against the backdrop of the University of Oxford’s medieval architecture. The opening credits proceed as Oliver Quick (Keoghan) walks around the university while an orchestral adaptation of the 1727 anthem, Zadok The Priest, plays in the background. 

Upon delving further into the explicit moments of Saltburn, one could immediately discern that it is a film dedicated to beauty — evident in the casts and the meticulous presentation of its setting. As part of the film’s promotion, Fennell’s commentary on Vanity Fair discussed the frame-by-frame shots that emphasize high angles and long shots, featuring castles with vast and sophisticated facades, starkly contrasting Oliver’s seemingly small stature against this grand backdrop. 

The tone of the film’s premise starts mild, presenting the main protagonist, Oliver, as a student with scholarship in Oxford seeking to fit in with his wealthy peers. The cinematic color-grading, dominated by contrasting hues of teal and orange, of the scenes within the university established a coming-of-age feel to obscure the impending suspense, similar to how the protagonist conceals his nature.

Screengrab from MGM Studios’ Saltburn Trailer/YouTube

The action rises when Oliver meets the wealthy and charismatic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), as Felix suffers the first among the many mishaps that would befall him. The two develop a friendship, leading Felix to invite Oliver to the Catton’s estate for the summer vacation. As the setting changed from the University of Oxford to the Saltburn estate, the general quality of the scenes’ visuals shifted from relatively high-key lighting to lower exposures and more intricate shadows.

Upon his first encounter with the Saltburn estate, Oliver expresses his astonishment at its sheer enormity, especially when he faces the imposing gates. He drags himself closer and closer to this magnificent madness. As his agenda unfolds, the contrast between elegant visuals and vulgar scenes creates disillusionment with obsessive decadence.

Fennell’s strategic use of lighting to accentuate the bodies in the film subtly alluded to the historical tradition of inbreeding within British aristocracy. The deliberate showcasing of bodies, highlighted by a hyper-focused lens or close-up shots, hues of bright sunlight, cigar smoke and dim bathtub lighting, imparted a profound sense of intimacy. It mirrored the close familial bonds prevalent in the British royal families, often associated with their extensive wealth and inbreeding practices.

Saltburn portrayed these familial connections subtly through Felix and the conversation he shared with Oliver. The casual revelation of their intimacy within their distant cousins in the Saltburn estate living room, combined with explicit displays of skin, allowed viewers to glean insights into the intimate nature of their relationships. This depiction deviated from commonplace cultural norms, emphasizing the unique closeness and physicality inherent in the British aristocratic tradition. 

The nuanced exploration of familial bonds among the Cattons, where they casually embrace exposed nudity as a regular social activity, added a layer of complexity to the narrative. The film deviated from typical family norms, suggesting that the Saltburn estate and the Cattons are unconventional and disconnected from the usual.

Furthermore, the film’s smaller aspect ratio limited viewers’ perception, contributing to the perspective of being an outsider and the “tabooness” of it all, as if the audience were intruding on the unattainable lives of the elite. 

As Oliver spends a captivating morning in Saltburn, a significant scene involving a runny egg unfolds. This moment subtly reveals Oliver’s contemplative demeanor and a hidden agenda. His request for a runny yolk during an English breakfast is a nuanced detail — how one asks for the doneness of the egg and suddenly reacts indifferently to the outcome. This seemingly small detail effectively encapsulated his identity. 

Screengrab from MGM Studios’ Saltburn Trailer/YouTube

Furthermore, Oliver’s alienation from the other rich characters is emphasized whenever he secretly observes them. Multiple scenes depict him peering through a window as he watches the lives of Felix, his peers and the Cattons. In the beginning, rooting for Oliver was fueled by the desire to see the exclusive world of the hyper-rich infiltrated. 

However, as the plot thickens, the audience witnesses Oliver revealing his inner desires and dislike for class differences. Ironically, he ends up aligning with them. The film’s storytelling focused on the beauty of the visuals, art for art’s sake.

As a result, the film failed to show Oliver’s background adequately. It neglected to discuss how his character was portrayed as eccentric or a socially awkward child at school. Saltburn’s failure to illustrate his challenges diminished the viewers’ understanding of his character and weakened the foundation for comprehending his motivations.

Screengrab from MGM Studios’ Saltburn Trailer/YouTube

On another note, if Fennell wanted to solidify the art for art’s sake approach, Oliver’s psychosexual obsession over the Cattons should have been his main motivation rather than contempt for the aristocratic family. The protagonist’s longing stares, voyeuristic tendencies and undue reverence towards Felix throughout the film exposed a homoerotic desire behind his obsession with him. 

Therefore, the emphasis on Oliver’s hatred as the narrative progressed made less sense. Regardless of whether Oliver truly hated the Cattons or not, Saltburn would not have been less of a class critique, as the mere depiction of class distinctions and their implications would have sufficed. Oliver deliberately uttering his disdain for the family in the final scenes came off as an overstatement. It was as if the movie wanted to pander to a particular audience. 

The satire of the primal desire for pleasurable things through depictions of graphic sensuality could have been a springboard for a critique of class conflict that would linger in the viewers’ minds. 

As a result, the resolution fell flat as it failed to satisfy the laws of poetic justice, with the overall scheme lacking a retributive aspect because of the dissonance between the character’s background and his supposed motivation for infiltrating the lives of the aristocratic family. 

While boasting impressive facades, backdrops and phenomenal costumes, the film did not cater to audiences seeking a deeper analysis. Despite Saltburn’s visual strengths, its storytelling lacked the necessary depth, particularly in explaining how Oliver arrived at his ulterior motive. The sudden revelation of his motivations left viewers confused, as his journey into the world of the hyper-rich was not adequately explored or justified. F – Jaila Marjaan Abdul and Janssen Anne Versy Mendoza


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