In the year of 2006, Oxford students shun the awkward and shy University of Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) because of his perceived lack of upper-class credentials and manners. Popular student and heartthrob Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) is moved by the underdog, particularly after learning about his father’s history of drug abuse, and his broken upbringing. So he takes the apparently vulnerable boy under his wing, thus devoting his full care and attention. That raises a few eyebrows, with a fellow student warning Felix: “he buys his clothes from Oxfam”. But Felix is determined to make Oliver feel at home. He invites him to his family’s country house, called Saltburn, where he becomes fully immersed in the lavish, exotic, topsy-turvy world of the British upper class.
At Saltburn, Oliver meets Felix’s eccentric family: his stiff upper-lip father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), his sexy and extravagant mother Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and his equally beautiful and sexually liberated sister (Alison Oliver). Elspeth’s friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan) and Felix’s American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) are also an integral part of the seemingly endless celebrations. It is summer, and gorgeous weather prevails: “this is probably the hottest day of my life”, begrudges an elegantly-clad Elspeth, seemingly unaware that her heavy attire is contributing to the heat sensation.
Much like in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), the visitor wins over the heart of every member of the family. There is a lingering sexual tension. Audiences keep wondering whether this could morph into full-on seduction, as in the Italian film. At times, it seems that it is Oliver’s vulnerability that appeals to the family. Whatever the reason, they are all equally fascinated by the young man. The similarities with the 1960s’ classic do not stop here. They come full circle as Oliver’s real intentions begin to surface. Our protagonist isn’t as fragile and brittle as his nerdish, Mad-magazine face may suggest at first.
Sumptuous and elaborate parties ensue. Sir James wishes to throw a birthday celebration for Oliver with 100 or 200 guests (despite the fact that Oliver has no apparent real friends). Think of a very vanilla Salo, or the 100 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975) with a very British taste. The wealth is vulgar and grotesque, the meals look repulsively garish (perhaps indeed a little faecal), the upper class manners are so heavily affected that the characters feel barely human. The sexuality is ardent and yet unrealised. Everyone looks hungry, raunchy and deeply unhappy. A disorderly order, a fragile equilibrium that Oliver is more than keen to challenge. Even if it all ends in tears. Or blood.
Oliver initiates a very tense sexual encounter with Farleigh, who refuses to abide by the rules that the outsider created. So Oliver convinces the family to evict the only person who has not fallen into his web of lies. This is when it all begins to take a turn for the worse. At one point, Oliver’s deceitful tactics nearly collapse. Felix finds out where his parents live and takes Oliver on a much undesired trip back home, where he finds out that his family are a rather standard middle-class, and there is not a sign of drug use and deeply dysfunctional behaviour. But Oliver manipulation techniques are very advanced. He begs Felix not to share the news with the rest of the family, sparing them the disappointment and confrontation. Our strangely seductive protagonist is prepared to take very extreme measures in order to retain control over every single one of te different members of the bizarre family.
This is a technically accomplished movie, with the finest top-drawer performances, impeccable production design and elegant cinematography, on a par with the British ostentatiousness it sets out to portray. The imagery is plush, the frame ratio is unusually near-square, providing the film with a distinctive cinema experience, a bizarre fantasy drama where the monsters are the lewd and manipulative human beings. On the other hand, Saltburn lacks a clear message. We never know whether it sets out to criticise or to celebrate upper-class values. While Felix’s family are indeed filthy rich and annoyingly clueless, they are the victims, and therefore our allegiance does at least partly lie with them. There is no pleasure in watching the rich eat. But there is no pleasure in eating the rich, either. Ultimately, Fennel is not the hyperpolitical, transgressive Pasolini. While visually enrapturing, Saltburn is not particularly sexy and audacious, either, and the queer element is hardly innovative. All the sexual tension gets diluted in an overambitious narrative, which culminates in a film lasting 127 interminable minutes. Despite taking place in the sultry summer repleted with salacious characters, not for a minute did the hit of the season leave me feeling hot and horny.
Saltburn is in cinemas on Friday, November 17th.