Is Saltburn Satire?
Saltburn is a lot of things. Salacious. Scandalous. Shocking. But is it satire?
After the trailer was (finally, finally) released for the new Emerald Fennell feature film, Saltburn, I asked the question: what the hell is Saltburn? Now, a week after watching it and turning it in my head for days, I still don’t know the answer. This sick, salacious, yet ultimately satisfying film is a reinvigoration of its genre. But what genre is it aspiring to? And is it succeeding?
There are a few things I’m sure of. Saltburn is a study of dichotomies. Rich and poor. Filth and fabulousness. It’s the haves and the have-nots. Some have power, beauty, privilege, and love. The others have not.
Saltburn is also a masterclass in acting from Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick. Jacob Elordi holds his own as Felix, shedding his Netflix-star skin and playing a more substantive golden boy. Alison Oliver as Venetia is a breakout star in her role, teeming with both vulnerability and venom.
But most dazzling are the scenes with Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Keoghan together, both masters of their craft at their very best, (honorable mention to Carey Mulligan's scenes too.) But Keoghan has shown in this role that he doesn’t just play a part, he embodies an entity. Every cell of his body, every muscle in his face, is so carefully trained to play Oliver. His choices are always satisfying and surprising — and in a role as complex and cunning as this, he plays the audience like a fiddle.
The internet has, of course, been enamored and appalled by this film. Its blend of dark academia and homoerotic subtext of course makes it fodder for niche internet subcultures and instant cult status. And casting Jacob Elordi in anything also guarantees its interest from the mainstream audience — I mean, I firmly believe that if Call Me By Your Name had been made today, Jacob Elordi would have replaced Armie Hammer.
But the real question is: is Saltburn a satire?
Saltburn | Official Trailerwww.youtube.com
The era of watching the rich eat the rich
The “eat the rich'' genre has increased in popularity over the last few years. And Saltburn is an immersive deep dive into the world of the wealthy. From the halls and balls of Oxford to the sweeping grounds of Saltburn manor. Through its characters, we know what it’s like to be loved and lonely in these beautiful places, embraced and shunned by these beautiful people. And in every moment, the scepter of class disparity hangs over the settings and the relationships ensconced within them.
I can wax poetic about the promises and pitfalls of the genre’s unapologetic navel-gazing, with shows like Succession and White Lotusleading the pack. While we love to watch terrible rich people do terrible things to each other in beautiful locations, the genre is hardly subversive. It’s also not new.
Saltburn reminds us of the long lineage of class commentaries — especially those with homoerotic themes. Think The Talented Mr Ripley, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow as young and beautiful Americans in Italy, unable to escape the trappings of their class and the cradles of their privilege. Sound familiar? But no one would ever accuse Ripley of being a satire. So why are we so desperate to cast Saltburn as one?
Perhaps because Saltburn is, at its core, hilarious. The characters are almost cartoonish in their wealth and rituals- especially Pike as Elspeth, who insists on a black-tie dress code for family dinners and throws extravagant parties on a whim. Yet, even in its laughable strangeness, even these moments are not hyperbolic. For the characters, they’re real. And we only see their absurdity through the eyes of Oliver, Keoghan’s character. Which may be critical of the wealthy characters, but still covets their life.
What is the point of Saltburn?
But Saltburn is more than just a portrait of a rich family. The underlying darkness is what has compelled reviewers to call it a homoerotic thriller and to ascribe morality to its characters and its ending. But Saltburn cannot be a satisfying takedown of the wealthy if that’s not its goal. Here rests the tension between those who love Saltburn and those who loathe it. Does the film seek to understand and empathize with the wealthy? Or does it villainize them? In short, what is the point?
I think Saltburn is a character study in which class is a character itself. The antagonist, even. More attention is paid to the trappings of wealth, its various dimensions than is given to even Felix. Though we are told everyone loves Felix and he is bestowed with good looks and a first-class education, he is a shallow character. And this feels intentional. Felix is not beloved because he is Felix, he is beloved because he is Felix Catton, a symbol of all things upper-class and wealthy. Wealth here isn’t about money. We can assume many of the other students surrounding him have a lot of it. Instead, it’s about power. Which is the central theme of the film, and a fixture in the legacy of British class hierarchies.
American viewers might misunderstand the complexity of the British class system. It really is as shameless as it seems in the film — especially in 2006, before the 2009 financial crisis. This was the era of indie-sleaze (made clear by Jacob Elordi’s eyebrow piercing and carpe diem tattoo) and extravagant parties. Even old money stewards like Saltburn’s fictional Catton’s were not too invested in stealth wealth. And, a key component of this wealth is that it’s inherited for generations that predate the very existence of America.
Even Elordi, an Australian trying to understand the role, marveled at the revelation that English upper-class kids really can be so self-absorbed and pretentious. “I lived in Chelsea, and I would just go down to the coffee shops and listen to people talk and order their flat whites,” he told Vanity Fair. “That was kind of the final puzzle piece to realize you couldn’t really go too far with it.”
So while Saltburn ends with a line in which Oliver professes how hard he’s “worked” (this is all I can say without delving into spoilers), hard work is not valued in this system. Unlike the US and its fixation on self-made fortunes as the American Dream, fictional though they may be, those at the top of the British class system are proud that they have worked for nothing, and gained everything through birth. And this idea, that one inherits pedigree that cannot be replicated and is always out of reach, is what Saltburn is interested in.
Yet, it doesn’t approach this with satire. Director Emerald Fennell is not counting on our laughter, our morality, or even our praise. She wants us to be interested — in the characters but also in their place in the world. And with that, she succeeds.
Is Saltburn good?
Saltburn is beautiful (and also has some of the grossest shots I’ve seen in cinema, be warned). Saltburn is charming and deeply compelling. It’s also disgusting and feral and dark. I gasped aloud in the theater at first watch and instantly wanted to see it again. It’s an instant cult classic, cementing Barry Keoghan as a leading man and Jacob Elordi as a heartthrob. It’s one of the best films of the year. But it’s one that you have to see to believe.
A friend said, “Saltburn did for bathtubs what Call Me By Your Name did for peaches.” To understand how achingly accurate that is, I implore you to run to the theater and experience this shocking tale for yourself.