I sometimes find it necessary to clarify with people – and, honestly, sometimes with myself – that I don’t engage in the loose avocation of film criticism to employ what might be termed “better judgment.” I don’t read various films through the lens of any critical structure, or to whatever extent I do, it is a parallel digestive tract that operates alongside my taking in an entirely new object that could well throw it all for a loop. The experience, training, and taste I’ve acquired over the years is only in service of better elucidating my feelings on cinema as they relate to a particular object or set of objects under discussion.
To that end, Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature, Saltburn, is ostentatious, provocative, derivative, at once overdetermined and very poorly thought out, and possibly lands on the wrong side of the class war, and I absolutely loved watching it and have zero real gripes about any of its rather potential faults. That I initially wrote “shortcomings” instead of “faults” there is representative of its pleasures – it is all in on its particularly foolish impulses, and I found it utterly irresistible.
Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, who despite having a name that sounds like a DC superhero, is in fact all too ordinary for Oxford University, where he is beginning his college life. After an awkward few weeks, he meets by chance Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who despite sounding like a Dickens orphan, is in fact the progeny of wealth. They fall into the easy friendship that often emerges when both parties need something from the other – Oliver needs acceptance, Felix needs adoration. And it’s quite possible Oliver wants a good deal more from Felix than mere friendship.
When summer vacation arrives and Oliver tells Felix he never wants to return to his own fraught home, Felix invites him to Saltburn, his family’s luxurious estate.
There, the core cast of the film quickly emerges – Felix’s mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). All eccentric in their own way. As the summer teases on, Oliver’s own eccentricities begin to emerge, and his true aims in being there, as well as his own nature, start to tease the audience. Is he just growing bolder amidst this affluence? Or was he always a little bit unusual?
The ultimate answers are both less predictable and more disappointing than the question, as answers can sometimes be. Fennell’s breakout film, Promising Young Woman, suffered in its own difficulty deciding what it’s all about, seeming to write itself as it went before arriving at a poorly-formed conclusion that aimed to tie everything together. Saltburn has the same structural difficulty, made all the more regrettable because her impulses throughout the script are otherwise so keen, genuinely incisive and insightful about her characters and the world they populate.
But I was ultimately too taken by those impulses to much mind. Its obvious influences – The Talented Mr. Ripley, Teorema, Call Me By Your Name, Summer of ’85, among many – are too far in my wheelhouse to allow me to begrudge a film that shares that fondness. Beyond its fraternity, the film is on its own a fountain of pleasures, from its mid-2000s soundtrack (it is literally impossible to declare when this film truly takes place, but it’s somewhere in there), Linus Sandgren’s lush cinematography, the pure opulence of the estate, and Fennell’s own exceedingly clever wit in doling out dialogue and circumstance. A week after seeing the film, lines – particularly from Rosamund Pike – are still bouncing around in my head, prompting a smile and an urge to return to it.
This is to say nothing of the film’s perversion, which it wields as one of several weapons to at once gut and massively magnify that same pleasure. Some reviews, even those praising is, find Fennell’s provocations – a big drink of semen water here, menstrual cunnilingus there, plus one delightful twist on the climax of Ozon’s Summer of ’85 that had my industry-stacked crowd completely unsure how to respond – to be empty and attention-grabby, devoid of substance and purely to stir up a too-content Oscar crowd. I truly don’t care whether that allegation is fair, and the commonality of its use, having been leveled at damn near anyone who deals in sexual grotesquery, renders it virtually meaningless.
The fact is Fennell gave me images that no other contemporary mainstream film has, images often literally soaked in desire, lust, and base carnal need, all of which transcends such pithy considerations as “meaning.” It is its own meaning; it is its own purpose. One does not require any greater cause to bring beauties like Elordi and Oliver to the fore. That, in so doing, also posits such heretofore unasked questions as “is Barry Keoghan actually quite attractive?” is but a bonus. Movies create desire; they, to paraphrase Ebert in a way I believe he’d approve, are machines that generate sex.
To grab another lofty quote (see, what else would this education be good for), François Truffaut once wrote, “Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” Fennell’s film, like many sophomore features before it, is taking all her success with her last film and basking in it, soaking up every second of the ample resources and lifestyle afforded her – the massive houses, the endless parties, and free-flowing liquor and drug use and long baths and summers spent all day outdoors in the nude – putting it onscreen for those of us who haven’t the fortune of our own fame, and then burning it to the ground. There are worse ways of using the seventh art.