Emerald Fennell’s second feature, “Saltburn,” is described as a perverse, psychosexual thriller of the highest order.

In her second feature, writer-director Emerald Fennell fully embraces the Gothic genre, presenting a transgressive narrative that delves into themes of wealth, class, and desire.

The Saltburn viewing experience can be likened to doing a line of coke off a copy of Brideshead Revisited, as described by some. This second feature from writer-director Emerald Fennell, known for her Oscar-winning screenplay for Promising Young Woman, is a Gothic thriller infused with a seductive yet toxic allure.

The story follows Oliver, portrayed by Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan, a scholarship student at Oxford in 2006 who finds himself drawn into the world of the wealthy and privileged through his friendship with the popular aristocrat Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi. As Oliver becomes entangled with the Catton family during a summer at their estate, a series of tragic events unfold.

Saltburn presents a richly dark portrayal of obsession and intense desire. Fennell’s decision to frame the narrative within the context of a British class drama, albeit with a contemporary twist, adds a layer of grandeur to the transgressive themes of the film. This approach effectively draws the viewer into the story, making them complicit in the unfolding events.

The visual imagery in Saltburn is exquisite, transforming the visual language of a psychosexual thriller into the evocative style of an old master. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s work invokes the baroque darkness of Caravaggio and the ornate elegance of Gainsborough. The film skillfully utilizes mirrors and reflections, reminiscent of director Douglas Sirk’s work, seen in settings ranging from a tranquil country pond to a meticulously arranged dinner table. Fennell’s script is equally rich, employing metaphors of moths, spiders, and vampires to construct the feverish dream-like quality that defines Saltburn’s surreal reality.

The film features a remarkably talented cast, delivering performances as devious and surprising as the story’s twists and turns. Barry Keoghan, portraying Oliver, delivers a towering performance, balancing sinisterness and irresistibility with precision. He immerses himself in the plot’s manipulations with malicious glee, using his sad eyes and severe cheekbones to effectively mask Oliver’s performative and manipulative nature. Keoghan brings an impressive level of abandon to every scene, driving the film towards its divinely gonzo conclusion. Both Keoghan and Fennell fearlessly explore the sociopathic consequences of obsession.

In “Saltburn,” Elordi from “Euphoria” captivates as the irresistibly charming yet spoiled rich boy, wielding his charm like a weapon to convince audiences that his true power lies not in his wealth, but in his crooked grin and tousled hair. It’s undoubtedly the pinnacle of his career so far. The entire cast makes bold and vibrant choices, with Alison Oliver shining as troubled sister Venetia, Carey Mulligan delivering a tragically eccentric performance as family friend Pamela, and Richard E. Grant portraying entitled befuddlement with pitch-perfect precision.

However, it’s Rosamund Pike who emerges as Saltburn’s secret weapon. Her razor-sharp wit transforms the chilly family matriarch Elspeth into a terrifyingly delicious satire of the idle rich. Pike navigates her scenes with the precision of an ice pick, showcasing her remarkable talent and cunning approach to her craft once again.

 

Some viewers may perceive the film’s extravagances as excessively over-the-top. However, when fully embracing the Gothic genre, one might as well dive in headfirst and embrace every bit of extravagance. As the saying goes, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” or in this case, in for a grave. This approach resonates with the spirit of Mary Shelley, whose works epitomize the essence of the Gothic with its emphasis on excess and the sublime. Fennell’s filmmaking embodies these qualities, offering a refreshing departure from the sterile and ascetic entertainment prevalent in contemporary cinema.
“Saltburn” is a daring and intense exploration of repulsion and desire, delving into the unsettling transformation that occurs when intense longing morphs into something deeply disturbing. Fennell deftly captures the essence of obsession, recognizing that its essence lies not in mere possession but in the insatiable urge to completely consume the object of fascination. The film’s boldness may not appeal to all audiences, but its visceral potency and fearless embrace of elegant weirdness make it a compelling experience. With its rich visual and literary layers, “Saltburn” is destined to draw ardent admirers back repeatedly, serving as a triumph of cinematic excess in all its unapologetic, orgiastic glory.
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