Saltburn (2023)

What bath God wrought

There are a bunch of ways to evaluate the artistic achievement of a film. One of them is to ask how easy it is to make a list of the ten best scenes in the movie. Are there even ten scenes you can remember in most movies? On this metric, Saltburn is one of the best movies of the year. You can come up with ten bangers without really trying,* and could probably get twice that far if you put your mind to it.

Saltburn is a season of a CW drama packed into two hours, R-rated and smut-flavored without actually being too smutty. A Separate Peace gets the Riverdale treatment. Blissfully idiotic teen melodrama set to arch, indulgent filmmaking. It is trash, readers, and I loved it.

This is the second film by Emerald Fennell, following Promising Young Woman, which made the mistake of being a message movie. Fennell clearly has the chops to make something colorful and fun and pulpy, but instead made an oddly toothless #MeToo quasi-satire. I’m so glad she opted for something less preachy this time around: It’s hard to have a good time when your story is a 90-minute rant about systemic rape culture.

Rejoice! Saltburn has nothing to say. It would be fair to criticize its depiction of yet another problematic gay teen romance as told by a straight woman, though I’d counter that any romance in this kind of heightened teen drama would be hollow nonsense. It would also be fair to say that its thoughts on class disparity are a clusterfuck, which is true, but it’s hardly a problem. We’re not dealing with a Triangle of Sadness-type self-satisfied pseudo-comic ramble as the raison d’être. The depiction of class is here only to facilitate the narrative madness.

Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is a poor scholarship student at Oxford in 2006, where he meets the ridiculously wealthy and handsome Felix (Jacob Elordi), with whom he’s immmediately smitten. The two gradually grow closer, especially when Oliver’s dad dies and Felix offers comfort. Felix invites Oliver to stay with him at his sprawling manor so Oliver doesn’t need to spend the summer at his own dysfunctional home.

This first half hour of Saltburn may have you wondering what all of the fuss is about: It plays as a pretty straight English boarding school drama. Fennell only rolls her sleeves up and starts cooking when the story shifts to the titular Saltburn estate for the summer.

As Oliver soaks in the sprawling Saltburn estate, he also finds himself easing into the casual decadence and cruelty of his wealthy companions, which include Felix’s parents (Rosamund Pike & Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and childhood friend Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). Paul Rhys also hangs around as a hysterically overbearing, Mrs. Danvers-esque butler.

From here the film gradually shifts into a heightened melodrama so outrageous it doubles back into a black comedy. I laughed many times. Some of these moments are for the annals: Oliver does something unspeakable with a bathtub that is a good litmus test for the film — if you find it repellent, you’ll probably hate the film. If you find it hilariously extra, you’ll probably have a good time. (I’m #TeamTub.) This moment perhaps overshadows a nearby scene nearly as appalling/brilliant: a nighttime encounter between Oliver and Venetia that would make Edward Cullen blush.

The cast is really here for a good time: Elordi is appealing as a dream-hunk, and Keoghan is fantastic as the damaged, yearning protagonist. Pike as Lady Elspeth chews through her scenes so hard I’m surprised they could print it on celluloid without damaging it. Carey Mulligan (star of Promising Young Woman) appears for a scene or two to transform a kooky cousin into the Mad Hatter. Madekwe gives world-class “bully in a 2000’s UPN high school drama” vibes.

Saltburn’s final half hour kicks off with a dark moment that really feels like it should be in the last five minutes of the film, but believe me that the overlong ending is worth it for all the juicy drama and twistiness it packs in, plus a final shot that would get Fennell arrested in some countries. The film is not afraid to shed its skin and turn into something else in genre and tone, which it does about four times. These shifts are a feature, not a bug: they’re all part of the “muchness” of the novelistic story.

Fennell has an eye for extravagance and memorable compositions. She is perhaps not a capital-G great director, but she is an auteur of this specific, gaudy style. Her most daring choice is to shoot at 1.33:1 in an era when widescreen is king. This accomplishes two things: First, it gives the movie more of a vertical, painterly feeling that captures the hugeness of the indoor spaces. Some of these compositions are gorgeous with ravishing lighting. Second, it gives the sensation that we’re watching a daytime soap opera on a CRT, a junk food Tuesday afternoon telenovela with no shame.

I’m loathe to call Saltburn one of the best movies of the year, but it honestly might be, at least on the metrics by which I enjoyed it. (Note that “good taste” and “narrative restraint” are not those axes; very little of the story stands up to critical thinking.) If nothing else, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling it one of the most pleasurable movies of the year: a specimen of daft, luscious, overstuffed, edgy teen melodrama fun. Beautiful, stupid trash.

* And just to complete the thought exercise, here are ten unforgettable scenes off the top of my head:

Major spoilers!

  1. The tub slurp
  2. The period blood seduction
  3. The grave humping
  4. The dick-swinging finale
  5. The tracking shot tour of the mansion
  6. The grieving bath kiss
  7. Ripping out Lady Elspeth’s breathing tube
  8. The reveal of Oliver’s not-so-evil parents
  9. The state-of-shock brunch after Felix’s death
  10. Oliver’s spite-filled come-on to Farleigh

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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2 replies on “Saltburn (2023)”

This might have made me more eager to catch up with it than any of the other takes I’ve read.

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