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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

“Saltburn”: Emerald Fennell’s R-rated masterclass in distraction and subversion

Photo: IMBD

Emerald Fennel’s new film “Saltburn” had members of the Emerson community divided as they exited the Bright Family Screening Room on Nov. 1st. 

Fennel won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with her 2020 debut “Promising Young Woman”—with “Saltburn,” she brings another subversive tale of obsession to the screen.

“Saltburn” follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an awkward young student from Oxford University, as he struggles to find a place for himself in British high society. From the opening scene, we can see that he fits in as well as a round peg in a square hole—he arrives at the university in his crisp uniform, gawking, while all the other students are nonchalant in sweats and casual clothes. It becomes apparent that no one wants anything to do with Oliver, the poor “scholarship boy.” 

When Oliver forges a chance friendship with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the audience is thrown into a fast-paced story about class, desire, and ambition. Everyone loves Felix. How could they not? During an interview with the Beacon, “Saltburn” director Emerald Fennell discussed the film’s chaotic storytelling in combination with desire and intimacy between characters.

“It’s interesting the way these kinds of conversations tend to be framed is that often I’m found that I love to talk to people about how they felt, and certainly, what people often come and say is anecdotal evidence about how other people felt.”

This necessity is shown through the characters. Felix is everything Oliver wants to be: rich, charming, and comfortable among the privileged upper class. But he also has a hollow, performative side to him. Elordi skillfully conveys Felix’s constant struggle to live up to expectations. Through the smallest expressions and mannerisms, the “Euphoria” star shows us that Felix is human, and he doesn’t breeze through life quite in the way he pretends to. Elordi’s interpretation of Felix helps the audience connect to an otherwise unrelatable character. 

In the wake of a tragedy, Oliver accepts an invitation to stay at Felix’s family estate for the summer. As events chaotically unfold, we keenly feel how tenuous Oliver’s position in the house is and how desperately he wants to stay. His infatuation with Felix quickly evolves into an obsession seemingly rooted in desperation, and it doesn’t stay cute for very long. With few words, Keoghan masterfully shows the potent, contradictory mix of emotions directing Oliver’s actions.

“Saltburn” is a tense story that balances atop the razor’s edge dividing love and hate. Fennell describes this unique balance of what she hopes for audiences to take away. 

This film is about what happens to you when you cannot touch the thing you want to touch, which is something that we all experienced in COVID.” Fennell said. “It is intimate, it is maybe transgressive for some people, but I’m trying to get to always something kind of honest and complicated.”

Talking with a few audience members outside of Emerson’s Paramount Theatre after the early screening, I noticed that there were two viewer factions that reflected exactly what the film’s story aimed to portray—this is a divisive movie. 

Extended, explicit scenes showing the lengths Oliver will go to satisfy his unrequited desire were perceived as either bold thematic statements or unnecessarily disturbing attempts to maximize shock value. You’ll either love this movie or you’ll hate it. There is no in-between. 

In any case, the audience reacted strongly to the film’s numerous depictions of Oliver doing extremely socially unacceptable things. The theater was filled with groans of disgust and shocked laughter during a specific scene involving a bathtub drain. An extended scene midway through the movie had one person saying, “Make it stop, ugh,” while several others died of laughter. 

I loved the film. Its most repulsive scenes weren’t there solely to make the audience squirm—though that was undoubtedly part of it.

“At one point, the audience starts to turn on itself because everyone thinks  everyone else’s response is crazy and wrong. That’s why you make movies. It is for people to not necessarily know how they’re supposed to physically or emotionally respond to something. To not be told, to have to kind of decide for themselves.” Fennell said. “I think the intimate scenes in this film are devastating and sexy and like all, you know, interesting love stuff, not necessarily straightforward.”

The nasty parts had meaning, and the degradation of the protagonist helped drive home powerful thematic statements about class, ambition, and obsession. If these themes had been examined through a less explicit lens, I don’t think I would have had the visceral reaction to the film that I did. Fennell depicted these explicit scenes for necessity, not for visual pleasure. 

“I think that’s the really important thing about this film is that the scenes of intimacy in this film are completely necessary.” Fennell said. “The thing that’s kind of interesting in an audience watching it with other people is that everyone feels differently about what they’re seeing. Some people are annoyed. Some people don’t get it. Some people are laughing. Some people are laughing with embarrassment. Some people are squirming. Some people are turned on.”

The best part of the film was the twist at the end. It had me staring at the screen with my mouth hanging open. I thought of the clues that, in retrospect, were obvious and wondered how I’d missed them. “Saltburn” is a masterclass in distraction. It uses the viewer’s expectations against them. 

One revelation was so skillfully concealed that when the veil was finally whisked away, I spent a solid ten seconds denying what I was seeing—waiting for the reality I’d known to return. I was as shocked as the characters in the film. 

Like the explicit scenes, the crazy twist has value beyond its surprise factor. The twist takes the thematic complexity already present in the film one necessary step further, changing the meaning of every event that happened before it. We discover that the orchids are all Venus flytraps set on devouring one another. What is pathetic becomes dangerous without ever losing its roots. 

“Saltburn” shows us how a great range of human emotions can be contained within a single act. In pursuit of unrequited love, how far is too far? 

If you like movies that ask hard questions, see “Saltburn” when it comes out on Nov. 17th. 

“I loved Felix,” Oliver asks in the opening scenes from some mysterious point in the future, “but was I in love with him?” 

The movie doesn’t supply the answer you might expect.

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