Saltburn (2023) | Reviews

A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family's sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.
Saltburn (2023)

At Oxford University in 2006, Oliver Quick, a scholarship student, navigates the choppy waters of elite society, finding a friend in the well-to-do and empathetic Felix Catton. Their bond deepens, but strains appear, leading to Felix distancing himself after a heated disagreement. When Oliver’s world crumbles with the news of his father’s sudden passing, Felix offers solace and an escape to his family’s expansive estate, Saltburn.

Here, Oliver meets the Catton family: Sir James, Lady Elspeth, their daughter Venetia, their American cousin Farleigh, and Elspeth’s friend Pamela. Oliver’s humble background and unpolished demeanor endear him to the family. However, his charm takes a dark turn when he seduces Venetia in the garden, a liaison that Farleigh witnesses and reports, sparking a confrontation with Felix. Oliver’s attraction to Felix turns obsessive, culminating in a charged sexual encounter with Farleigh, laden with veiled threats. Following an accusation of theft, Farleigh is unceremoniously removed from Saltburn.

As summer wanes, a birthday celebration is planned for Oliver. In a surprise twist, Felix takes Oliver to visit his estranged mother, uncovering the facade of Oliver’s tragic family history. Felix’s discovery of Oliver’s lies leads to an ultimatum: leave Saltburn post-party. During the lavish bash, Oliver confesses his feelings to Felix in the estate’s labyrinth, only to be rejected and advised to seek help.

The following day, Felix is found dead in the maze. At a family lunch fraught with tension, Oliver subtly casts suspicion on Farleigh, leading to his banishment and disinheritance. Despite the family’s reservations, Elspeth insists Oliver remain at Saltburn. In a macabre act of mourning, Oliver displays disturbing behavior at Felix’s grave. His attempts to seduce a distraught Venetia end in rejection. The next morning, Venetia’s suicide further fractures the family, prompting James to bribe Oliver to leave.

Years later, following James’s death, a chance meeting with Elspeth leads to an invitation back to Saltburn. After months together, Elspeth falls gravely ill. On her deathbed, Oliver shockingly confesses his orchestration of the tragedies at Saltburn – from Felix’s murder to Venetia’s suicide and Farleigh’s expulsion. Revealing that Elspeth has left her fortune to him, Oliver callously ends her life. Now master of Saltburn and its riches, Oliver celebrates his ascension with a naked dance of triumph to “Murder on the Dancefloor.”

The Beauty, Wealth, and Violence of Saltburn

Emerald Fennell’s latest film, following the critically acclaimed Promising Young Woman, is a straightforward tale with complex layers of attraction, justice, violence, and an abundance of wealth. Featuring Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi.

by Gabriele Niola

Emerald Fennell, post-Promising Young Woman, was often hailed as the cinematic voice of #MeToo and a crusader for women’s vengeance. That film was raw activism at its core, yet it was also something more – it heralded the emergence of a director with a distinct vision. Saltburn not only cements Fennell’s status as a formidable force in filmmaking but also invites a reevaluation of her previous work, suggesting a thematic continuity rather than a response to a particular historical moment.

Saltburn drives home one point consistently: the rich are beautiful. Their allure lies not just in their looks but in their power, the lifestyle they offer, and the opportunities they bring – all of which make them irresistibly attractive. This idea is exemplified perfectly by the casting of Jacob Elordi (famous from Euphoria, and soon to be seen as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla). Everyone yearns to be part of their world, as the protagonist, not born into wealth, observes about his charismatic, rich, and popular college friend. A friendship blooms, leading to an invitation to spend the summer at Saltburn, a family manor brimming with guests, parties, and opulence. Here, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), our lead, feels like a fish out of water, much like at college where his non-elite status was an open secret, until he begins to grasp and maneuver through the dynamics of this new world.

With a vibrant color palette and stunning cinematography reminiscent of the ’70s yet quintessentially British, the film explores themes of violence, death, and sex. Fennell’s movies might follow familiar narratives (here, it echoes The Servant, a touchstone in British culture), but their vivid visual storytelling betrays an ambition to infuse these genres with melodrama. In Fennell’s world, everything hits hard; even when emotions like in Saltburn are restrained, the environment envelops the audience, influencing the characters and leading them to extreme behaviors. Saltburn echoes Promising Young Woman in its central theme: attraction as a means of exacting justice. Here, the rich wield it to allure and dominate, and Oliver learns to master it too, attracting not just physically but also as the exotic friend.

In British cinema, class is always a critical theme, given the stark divide between the elite and the rest, which persists today. Saltburn addresses this, but on its way to the climax (with several pivotal turns), it deftly touches on numerous other themes through its imagery.

The aforementioned cinematography speaks of old-fashioned settings, wooden rooms where no one dares install an air conditioner on the walls, and particularly through Saltburn Manor, a place that seems to possess its inhabitants, almost vampiric in its allure. Fennell has taken a page from Call Me by Your Name (notably, the protagonist shares the name of one of that film’s key characters) about how a leisurely summer can be the perfect backdrop for intersecting desires, whether lounging in the garden or on sofas at home, but also for nocturnal watchfulness and expectation. She combines the insane staging ideas of Guadagnino with the dynamics of Pasolini’s Teorema. However, the family in Saltburn is not a group of inhibited upper-middle-class people but rather a chaotic, bored progressive bourgeoisie, needing not sexual promises but a deeper disruption – an entanglement with the ‘lower’ class, which they believe they can dominate like their other guests. In this, Barry Keoghan’s performance is pivotal. He weaves a complex character with an enigmatic face, raising questions about Oliver’s motives and actions.

Rather than oscillating between hardness and softness, fragility and pettiness, Keoghan shows a character truly experiencing both. In Fennell’s films, emotions are always genuine; it’s the people who might be deceitful. Oliver’s feelings – attraction, affection, despair, and cynicism – are all real. Keoghan masterfully holds these opposites together, convincingly portraying a character in internal conflict, where each action feels like the outcome of an internal struggle. A finale that relies on a verbal confession isn’t ideal, but again, Keoghan delivers it effectively, with the bitterness and hindsight it needs. Saltburn might irk some with its symbolism, but it’s also a film that adeptly portrays the inherent violence and domination in the mechanisms of attraction, as seldom seen on screen.

Esquire, Italy edition, October 23, 2023

* * *

“The Beautiful Summer” at the home of the wealthy, among cocaine and penises

Fennell’s work is excellent, another promising director

by Federico Pontiggia

Attention: There are not only Paola Cortellesi, who with C’è ancora domani has surpassed 30 million euros at the domestic box office, and Greta Gerwig, with the highest global gross of 2023 with Barbie, but also other great women growing behind the camera, among them the unmissable Emerald Fennell.

London-born, class of 1985, Fennell made a mark in 2020 with – prophetically titled – Promising Young Woman, for which she won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Now, she reinforces her uncompromising cinema with Saltburn, which is released in theaters elsewhere and arrives on Prime Video in our country on Friday. Don’t miss it.

Some have described it as The Talented Mr. Ripley with a goth twist, but we can do better: imagine Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon meets Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, not to mention Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Saltburn may fall short of these grandiose parts, but it does not show any complexes: Fennell, who also writes and produces, perfects the social ascent, with related deaths, of Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), attracted by the charming aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) to Saltburn, the eccentric family estate, for a truly unforgettable summer. The cast, besides the formidable Keoghan and the less fluid Elordi, also includes the superb Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan. However, what stands out most is Fennell’s cunning, wicked, and sharp mix of privilege and desire. She knows cinema history and perhaps even more about sociology and psychology, as seen in how she sharpens characters and orchestrates relationships.

Moreover, she is not at all prudish, so Guadagnino’s Chalamet’s peach scene pales in comparison to the sexual freedom, better yet, the sexual strategy of Oliver, who indulges in cunnilingus during menstruation, necrophilia, or at least, copulation on a grave, and other interested amenities. All well-conceived, excellently choreographed, and elegantly framed by Fennell, who makes her way among the happy few with a camera-scalpel that incises hypocrisies, dissects psychoses, and uproots systems.

Keoghan, who will delight in the finale with a penis-exposed ballet, gives the terrible Oliver a mix of neoliberalism and ancient greed, punk spirit, and will to power, sealing one of the most uncomfortable and interesting characters of cinematic 2023. You might recall Marco Ferreri, and not without reason, while Fennell seeks symmetries and finds labyrinths, probes family secrets and selects impetuous social climbing, distilling the bile of perfidious Albion and snuffing out the goodness of Hogwarts: all in one summer, with existential sales at the end of the season and unforeseen outcomes. Saltburn was in contention for the Venice Film Festival, instead, it was baptized at Telluride on August 31 last year and then opened the BFI London Film Festival in October, before landing at the Rome Film Festival: three Critics Choice Awards nominations, two – Keoghan and Pike – at the Golden Globes, promising, and delivering, to remove the cloyingness of the incipient Christmas. Do not abstain.

Il Fatto Quotidiano, December 16, 2023

* * *

Saltburn: A Mesmerizing Abyss of Obsession Worth Diving Into – A Review of Jacob Elordi’s Latest Film

Emerald Fennell’s sophomore directorial venture hits Amazon Prime Video on December 22, delivering an unforgettable cinematic experience.

by Giovanna Gallo

Saltburn is a lot of things, but it’s definitely not what we anticipated. First off, it’s not Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s debut feature that bagged her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2021, among a slew of other accolades. And it’s certainly not a retread of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, although a cursory read of the synopsis might suggest Fennell cribbed the plot from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name.

Instead, Saltburn is a deliciously madcap affair – and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s a Christmas release, but forget those sugary Hallmark films and cookie-cutter comedies set in Rockefeller Center. Fennell’s latest, previewed at the last Rome Film Festival and debuting for the masses on Amazon Prime Video on December 22, whisks us away to Saltburn, a dark, sprawling, and luxurious manor in the English countryside. Everything screams 2006 – the protagonists’ style, the soundtrack – but the happenings in that house feel like they’re straight out of a 19th-century novel.

We first glimpse the estate through the eyes of our protagonist, Oliver (played by the unforgettable Barry Koeghan), invited to spend the summer there by his friend Felix (Jacob Elordi, who can be as charming as in The Kissing Booth and as disturbing as in Euphoria). Felix is a scion of the aristocratic Catton family, which has owned Saltburn for ages. Oliver, a scholarship student at Oxford, is sharp but poor, struggling to blend in with the privileged student elite who view the prestigious university as just another tedious rite of passage. Coming from a broken home with a toxic mother and drug-dealer father, Oxford is his ticket out. Then he meets Felix, and like everyone else, is enchanted. Felix, with his effortless charm, born of a life never having to adapt to wealth, takes Oliver under his wing and invites him to Saltburn. Thus begins Oliver’s obsession.

Saltburn is home to Elsbeth (a stunning Rosamund Pike), an ex-model turned trophy wife of the much older Sir James Catton, guaranteeing her a life of comfort and luxury; Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix’s seemingly carefree sister, who’s inwardly troubled; and Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a cousin indefinitely living at Saltburn while his mother, an outcast, is exiled in America. He’s the first to notice Oliver’s double game. The daily life at Saltburn unfolds like a scene from Downton Abbey, the parties are grander than Gatsby’s, and friends in need, especially those allowing the Cattons to play benevolent saviors, are always welcome – temporarily. Among these guests, besides Oliver, Felix’s new pet project, is Pamela (a delightful Carey Mulligan, Fennell’s muse and the star of Promising Young Woman), a troubled woman who becomes the object of Elsbeth’s charity. Bored with her complaints, Elsbeth unceremoniously removes her, driving her to despair. Oliver, on the other hand, clings to Saltburn, determined to belong: he desires Felix (or perhaps just wants to be him) and is consumed by his obsession, worming his way into everyone’s lives and influencing their decisions and downfalls.

Rather than dancing on their graves, he wants to make love on them – and that’s not a metaphor, but one of the film’s most potent, grotesque, and unforgettable scenes. No spoilers here, but it’s more than just being a guest at Saltburn; Oliver wants to rule it. Besides the aforementioned, there are two or three other deeply disturbing scenes that will linger in your mind, not just for their visual shock (deliberately over-the-top and bizarre) but for what they represent. They are all essential to understanding the depth of Oliver’s fall into perversion and lies and how deeply the Cattons’ cynicism, affectation, and falsehood are ingrained in Saltburn’s very foundations. Fennell weaves unmistakable symbols – the maze, the mirror, the doppelganger – into the narrative, suggesting that nothing is as it seems and that just when you think you’ve found the right path, that’s when you truly lose your bearings and descend into madness. She entrusts Oliver with a perverse, sick, yet incredibly seductive role, and Felix as the perfect deity no one can resist or say no to.

If Cassie from Promising Young Woman was obsessed with vengeance, Berry Keoghan’s Oliver is consumed by a wealth he lacks, which coats the Catton family like a cloying layer of chocolate icing (remember this analogy, it takes on a different flavor towards the end). The film’s first 30 minutes are deceptive, seeming like an innocuous introduction to a story set in Oxford (which in itself is a universe full of nuances); but once we arrive at Saltburn, everything changes, culminating in a perfect, delicious, unsettling, beautiful, albeit predictable climax. It might not be the ideal Christmas film, it might not be for everyone, but Saltburn is a gem of rare wickedness and intelligence. Now that Emerald Fennell has raised the bar, we have no idea what to expect from her next. And that’s a thrilling prospect.

Cosmopolitan Italy edition, December 18, 2023


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