Diving into ‘Saltburn’: A dark spin on class and privilege

Jacob Elordi in "Saltburn"

“Saltburn”, the winter 2023 movie, has been making waves online. It’s not just any film – it explores strong themes like obsession, power and greed. Writer and director Emerald Fennell’s newest cinematic venture, offers an insightful yet unnerving discourse into the deep-rooted societal issues of class and privilege. Some scenes from the movie have become very popular online, and the film has received mixed reviews. Some people loved it, while others didn’t particularly care for it at first but later grew to understand its deeper meanings. The film takes the form of a dark, twisted satire that grips the viewers, leaving them to ponder where the true malevolence lies.

Just a heads up – there might be spoilers in the rest of this article.

At the heart of the plot is the protagonist, Oliver, a fresh-faced recruit to the esteemed University of Oxford. Barry Keoghan skillfully portrays Oliver’s journey into the unknown. The Oxford that is presented to us in “Saltburn” is far from the dreamy spires and scholarly pursuits one might imagine. Instead, it serves as a horrifying embodiment of elitism, where Oliver’s “humble” origins and rented formal attire become the subject of cruel jests from his privileged peers. These individuals are depicted as either eccentric prodigies or pampered rich offspring, deepening the class divide.

The movie’s trailer presents itself as a story about summer romance. You might expect to see touching scenes of Ollie’s one-sided love for Felix, or maybe a sad encounter near the manor’s brick walls. But, the story changes unexpectedly, which can make you feel uncomfortable when you see Ollie drinking Felix’s bathwater. It seems Ollie believes in the saying ‘you are what you eat’.

As Oliver grapples with his newfound environment, he finds himself drawn towards the intriguing and charismatic Felix. Jacob Elordi, known for his role in Euphoria, brings the upper-class student Felix to life. The strange friendship between Oliver and Felix, set against the backdrop of their starkly contrasting backgrounds, is a central thread in the narrative. This narrative takes a chilling and unexpected turn as the film progresses into its second half.

Fennell masterfully crafts a narrative that is as unsettling as it is enthralling. She intriguingly describes it as a “vampire story”, a world where everyone is seemingly out for blood. Adding to the film’s eerie atmosphere is its nod to the ghostly remnants of early-2000s fashion, a subtle detail that enhances the intrigue of the narrative.

From a visual perspective, “Saltburn” is nothing short of stunning. The film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio serves to encase the claustrophobic world of Felix, providing a stark contrast to the splendor of his palatial home. The film’s aesthetic brilliance, coupled with Fennell’s captivating portrayal of a tantalizing yet unnerving world, is nothing short of hypnotic.

However, “Saltburn” does falter when it comes to its ambiguous messaging. The movie is about strong desire, destruction and passion, as it highlights these connected ideas. Ollie’s dreams can’t just be called materialistic, because he’s not just trying to get rich quickly by marrying into a wealthy family. Instead, he’s searching for who he is, or more specifically, the larger-than-life character he’s created in his head, hidden in the maze of Saltburn, hidden among its hedges. In Saltburn, he forgets who he is. It suggests that the true malevolence lies not within the ranks of the privileged, but among those who yearn to ascend the socio-economic ladder.

Billed as a critique of class, “Saltburn” is a puzzling entrant into the genre of “eat the rich” films, joining ranks with films like “Triangle of Sadness”, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and “The Menu”. Despite its visual allure and aesthetic appeal, it leaves viewers questioning its contribution to the ongoing cinematic dialogue on class disparity and wealth inequality.