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If the rich blithered as much in real life as they do in the movies, they’d have been eaten long ago. The fantasy that the privileged are easily gulled has a powerful lure. By placing riches in opposition to acumen, it reassures us that luxury and status are probably unearned—that, just as youth is said to be wasted on the young, wealth is wasted on the wealthy, and that it wouldn’t take much to get it into the right hands. That’s the premise of the British writer and director Emerald Fennell’s satire “Saltburn,” her second feature, which, for all the obviousness of its setup and its allocation of sympathy points, is diabolically clever. Yet the ingenuity of the story’s twists and turns ultimately left me feeling cheated, because of the cagy way that plot points are dispensed. It may seem odd to discuss the movie’s form before detailing the story, but the story’s essence is inextricable from Fennell’s way of telling it. There are, in effect, two movies at work in “Saltburn”—the one that Fennell puts onto the screen and the one that it implies—and the implied movie is better.
The movie is set mainly in 2006 and 2007, and the action begins in Oxford, where its protagonist, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), is a freshman. Nerdy, awkward, and provincial, Oliver is cruelly teased and becomes fixated on the sophisticated in-crowd surrounding a wealthy, well-connected student named Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is handsome, witty, and seductive. Yet we’ve already heard a bit about Felix before he’s ever seen, because the movie opens with Oliver’s brief retrospective monologue about him, delivered to camera. He wasn’t in love with Felix, he says, but certainly loved him. The movie is largely a flashback showing how the unalluring Oliver’s affections take dramatic effect.
Anyone who has read—or seen adaptations of—“Brideshead Revisited” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley” will have a pretty good idea of what’s coming. The gilded world of Felix and his acolytes seems unattainable, but then fortune smiles. Oliver has a chance to do Felix a favor—his lordship is late for class, and his bike has a flat. Felix, in return, welcomes Oliver into his social circle, overruling his posh friends’ doubts. In this sparkling milieu, Oliver talks up his background, explaining that growing up in poverty with substance-abusing parents has led him to shun home. At the end of the school year, Felix, seemingly taking pity and lending a helping hand (hard to know the difference), invites Oliver to spend the summer with him and his family at their mansion, on an estate called Saltburn.
The setup at Saltburn is volatile. There are Felix’s lordly, utterly unself-aware parents, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike); his idle sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver); his clingy flatterer at Oxford (Archie Madekwe), who is a half-American (relatively) poor cousin; and a family friend (Carey Mulligan), who has long outstayed her welcome. There’s also a butler (Paul Rhys), who superintends the household with all the warmth of the Grim Reaper. The butler’s condescension instantly intimidates Oliver, who evinces no familiarity whatsoever with the ways of high society. There’s further intimidation in the air: fleeting references to a houseguest of Felix’s from the previous year. Perhaps the magnanimous young host likes to pick up stray classmates of modest means, turning them into pets until he tires of them. Indeed, the entire Catton family seems to get off on creating dependents whom they can both pity and control.
At first, Oliver meekly and gratefully laps up, metaphorically, the warm milk of affection that the family bestows on him between their rounds of backbiting and oblivious self-admiration. He also—non-metaphorically—laps up bathwater in which he has seen Felix ejaculating. To all appearances, Felix is heterosexual, a young man of effortless and unfailing conquests, and Oliver concentrates his erotic attentions on the lonely and idle Venetia. In short, the action quickly suggests Pasolini territory. Like Terence Stamp’s character in Pasolini’s “Teorema,” the squat, lumpish Oliver is a mysterious visitor whose sexualized presence lays bare a wealthy family’s suppressed anxieties and buried torments. He’s a seducer whose inelegance, humble origins, and material dependence render him harmless, even submissive—and therefore alluring, even attractive.
Meanwhile, Fennell lavishes gleefully derisive attention on the splendiferous absurdities of the mansion and its inhabitants. The house is stuffed with ridiculous relics and over-the-top finery; the grounds offer welcoming expanses of nature and a menacing labyrinth of high bushes. The lord and the lady of the manor blither about, tossing out absurdities and cruelties as reflexively as sneezing. But Oliver decides that he likes it at Saltburn, and the extremes to which he goes in order to make sure he can stay furnish the film’s diabolical twists, which it would be criminal to reveal. Suffice it to say that “Saltburn” isn’t a whodunnit—that’s obvious—but a whydunnit, and that’s where it falls apart.
It does so because the why is almost as obvious as the who. Oliver is mostly just a vessel for class anxiety and unfulfilled sexual desire. “Saltburn” is more or less incel cinema, in which the protagonist’s frustrations and resentments are so self-evident as to short-circuit those speculations and create merely a rooting interest. This is strange because Oliver’s misdeeds become so outlandish, requiring a level of meticulous preparation that would throw even the most hardened criminal into a paranoid tizzy. Yet he can pull them off effortlessly. But how? Even more than a whydunnit, the movie is a howdunnit, yet Fennell leaves this question unanswered, even unposed. True, she helps herself by setting the film in 2006-07, before social media became ubiquitous, depriving characters of information that would now be readily available on a phone. But the more fundamental reason that Oliver can operate so frictionlessly is simply that the plot requires it. (Fennell’s previous feature, “Promising Young Woman,” has a similar problem, but it’s largely overcome by the story’s symbolic power and dramatic urgency.)
The cleverest thing about “Saltburn,” perhaps, is the way that, without actually disclosing much about Oliver, it inspires in the viewer fervid speculation about possible psychological and sociological motives that the oversimplified drama forecloses. As I say, the implied film is better than the actual one, and the implied one is the movie I found myself imagining with fascination as “Saltburn” unspooled. In that version Oliver is directorially conceived in a way that integrates his exceptional abilities and his exceptional personality, the planning and executions of his schemes are given time and attention, and his hunger to eat the rich is not generic but arises from a complex inner life that may be as troubling as it is troubled. Instead, he remains a blank, his activities remain a blank, his ideas remain a blank. This effacement leaves the movie a kind of decoy—an elaborately decorated, amusingly written, enthusiastically performed simulacrum of what might have been. ♦