New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Saltburn’ is a rave at an old gothic British mansion

Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s second film is a dark satire on the English class system, with Hitchcockian obsession at its most destructive form.
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Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s dark, satirical sophomore film is now running in select cinemas in New York City. (Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

A university student dressed too old for his age stands in front of an imposing gothic mansion. The sheer size and marvel of the grand estate makes it hard to believe that behind its chiseled walls lies a world of excessive indulgence, erotic desire and moral degeneracy. Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature “Saltburn” — a chaotic blend of satire and psychological thriller — is a stimulating exploration of the twisted English-upper-class experience. Riding high from the critical acclaim it received at the Telluride Film Festival, Fennell’s film, releasing fully on Nov. 22 after a limited release on Nov. 17, not only dismantles the refined facade of the ultra-wealthy, it also reveals the all-consuming nature of human desire. 

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a first-year at the University of Oxford. A nobody hidden under his checkered button-ups, making friends doesn’t come easily to him. He desires the raucous lifestyle of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a school celebrity with unimaginable wealth and even greater charm. After letting Felix borrow his bicycle, Oliver quickly opens up to him about his troubled childhood and alcoholic parents, earning his pity and affection. When summer rolls around and Oliver doesn’t want to return to his disastrous home, Felix invites him to his mansion in the English town of Saltburn where he meets Felix’s eccentric family, and quickly becomes involved in the sexual escapades and violence that take place there

Fennell presents a psycho-sexual tale of destructive obsession that might turn some viewers away. Although the dark aesthetic of the film is initially appealing, the perverted actions of the characters will make some audiences wince. 

The anachronistic aspect of “Saltburn” is one of the driving forces of the film, poking fun at the class division of British society. Fennell ironically uses modern pop songs within the archaic halls of Oxford and Felix’s gothic manor. During a dinner party that takes place in the mansion, the guests — all obscenely wealthy aristocrats — partake in a karaoke session with a song selection that ranges from Flo Rida’s “Low” to Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent.” The scene of two middle-class boys having a childish performance competition in front of the English aristocrats housing them is a perfect example of the satire that is carefully webbed throughout the film, as it distills the toxic elitism of the English upper class.

Through “Saltburn,” Fennell questions the nature of desire. Oliver slowly creeps in on the oblivious Felix, starting as a voyeur and then infiltrating his social group. The movie illustrates how simply gaining the object of your infatuation doesn’t satisfy it; the obsession is only over when it has been entirely consumed — when you have “licked the plate clean.” Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s stunning imagery, paired with a narrower aspect ratio, mimics the feeling of peering into a gap on the wall, as if the audience is intruding on something they were never meant to see.

Despite the disturbing narrative, “Saltburn” is still a hilarious movie. Elsbeth Catton, played by Rosamund Pike, keeps the audience laughing with her dark and snarky comments. Her interactions — with the help of a cameo appearance by Carey Mulligan, who starred in Fennell’s debut film “Promising Young Woman” — provides breathing room in an otherwise distressing story.

Keoghan also gives an amazing performance as an eerie, young-adult character, as he did in “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” perfectly encapsulating the perverted desire of an outsider looking for a way to penetrate into Felix’s family. Elordi, on the other hand, plays a dream, idyllic college student that entices the audience with his performance. 

To some viewers, “Saltburn” might be difficult to watch, with its plethora of convoluted metaphors and a montage of grotesque images. However, for those who aren’t put off by its imagery, the film’s hilarious dialogue makes it a wild ride as Fennell dives deep into the dark side of infatuation.

“Saltburn” is now showing in select cinemas around New York City. 

Contact Tony Jaeyeong Jeong at [email protected].

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