The film incites the kind of raging inferno inside of you that won’t be extinguished unless you’re able to immediately sprint to the watercooler and douse yourself with everyone’s opinions about the film. You will then vehemently disagree with those takes, because only your own thoughts matter on the cum-filled dirty bathwater, the period blood on the fingers, the nude scene to end all nude scenes, and, chiefly, what in the world you just watched happen on that grave site. (Cinema is back, baby!) But you’ll need to talk through these sequences regardless.
Emerald Fennell says there’s only one true spoiler in her second feature, and, wildly, it is none of those things mentioned above. The writer-director—and Oscar winner for her screenplay to 2020’s Promising Young Woman—is the authority on the matter; still, we’ll talk around the specifics of those plot points to try and preserve the euphorically uncomfortable, what-am-I-watching fun of experiencing them unfold. (Stay tuned for a later piece on all of Fennell’s spoiler-filled thoughts.)
Given the holiday timing, Saltburn, which hits theaters in limited release Nov. 17 and goes wide over Thanksgiving weekend, is an appropriately sumptuous feast of a film: all chiseled torsos glistening with sweat, fashion so lavish it borders on outlandish, shots of an expansive countryside estate that seem to have been French-kissed by the sun, and, well… murder.
It centers on Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a student who arrives at Oxford an immediate outcast, as he so obviously presents as not being from a privileged, entitled upbringing. He leers at the posh, cool kids with jealousy, particularly Felix (Jacob Elordi), an Adonis on a university quad. His dogged infatuation converts into a bit of endearing scheming, as he maneuvers himself into Felix’s good graces—even if the rest of the elitists in his circle disapprove.
A sob story is Oliver’s gateway ticket, with Felix feeling protective of his new impoverished friend after Oliver reveals that his parents are addicts and his father died. He scores an invite to stay with Felix’s aristocratic and oh-so eccentric family for the summer at their Versailles-like home. Oliver had managed to scale the gilded walls and ingratiate himself not just to Felix, the initial target of his obsession, but his entire family too. How does he get closer, now that he’s in? Moreover, how does he stay there?
The journey to those questions’ answers is an ecstatic, visceral, and sure-to-be polarizing viewing experience. Saltburn is a film packed with twists and turns that make you wonder not only if the train is going to go off the rails, but if the rails were even there in the first place.
“I think that talking about plot sometimes just isn’t that helpful,” Fennell tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, teeing off a discussion about themes of horniness, morality, perversion, and shame. “So much of the film is about what the person watching it thinks happened. I’m always a bit facetious, but I do say that, really, from the first moment of the film, everything that happens is made very, very explicit. And it’s just that people don’t necessarily want to see the things that are coming.”
But once you do, suffice it to say you can’t unsee them.
“A film about sticky things…”
Fennell and I are speaking in an extremely impressive and technologically advanced studio space, a black cube striped with blinding white beams of light that it is as terrifyingly dystopian as it is cool; we wonder which one of us, after our conversation, is going to be called up to compete in the Hunger Games.
It’s a far cry from the circumstances surrounding the last time we spoke, during Fennell’s first experience on the award-season press gauntlet for her previous film, Promising Young Woman. It was winter 2020, and interviews were confined to squares on a Zoom screen, conducted from people’s living rooms—an environment that inherently constricts the kind of vibrant discussion that should’ve been happening about that lightning-rod project.
Still, the surreality of getting accustomed to those work norms in the early days of the pandemic revealed Fennell’s endearing, funny nature. Originally, our Zoom interview was supposed to be off-camera and very early in the morning, which translates to: I was unshowered with incredible bedhead. It was a surprise, then, to be greeted by Fennell’s smiling face on screen when the conversation began, and she was graciously kind when a ragamuffin sheepishly turned his camera on, effusively apologetic; Oscar-hopefuls’ press tours should be more glamorous than that.
“I remember that, because I was so pregnant,” Fennell says. “I was just throwing up between Zooms.” She laughs: “And look at us now, in this futuristic, daunting box.”
That box is at the Jen Library at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Fennell is there to receive the Spotlight Director Award at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. That means finally being out in the world and in theaters, talking with actual humans in real life about the film she had made and they had just seen.
“When you make something like this, it’s all to talk to people,” she says. She recognizes how rabid people are to verbally vomit their feelings about the movie, too—and how revealing that can be. “In order to talk about the film, there’s a certain amount of personal disclosure required, that makes it quite a fun thing to talk about.”
In other words, the reaction a person has to the film’s more outrageous moments lays bare in raw form the feelings, judgments, and, perhaps even, fetishes we typically and fastidiously keep cloaked and hidden—whether because of cultural norms or personal embarrassment. Fennell herself has said that making Saltburn was like “taking my clothes off and exposing myself.”
“The way that that was phrased made me sound like a pervert,” she says with a laugh. “But what I meant was that it’s not just that you’ve made something, and that you want people to like it, even if you pretend you don’t care. But also that it’s a film about sticky things, which, if you’re the person who wrote and directed it, is also kind of exposing. But I’ve kind of gotten used to it now. Maybe.”
“I like feeling shaken up. I like feeling a bit strange after something.”
If you’ve seen the trailer for Saltburn, you know that there’s a certain horniness to the film. It’s earned comparisons to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Brideshead Revisited, which is to say that there’s a palpable homoeroticism to Oliver and Felix’s relationship. As the summer goes on, your own, aroused investment in their connection becomes practically feral, both wondering if there’s something sexual to their friendship and rooting for there to be. But then when the movie first begins to go there, showing the extent of Oliver’s twisted fascination, your libido and taste level twist into a complicated knot. Are you titillated? Should you be? Or are you just plain disgusted?
“It needs to be quite visceral, because it’s about permission. If you show it, you’re giving people permission to feel it,” Fennell says. “I like feeling shaken up. I like feeling a bit strange after something, and I think movies can do that better than anything.”
There’s a slew of moments in the film that certainly elicit that feeling, making leaving a screening akin to emerging from a rock tumbler. They test your limit for watching what some might consider sexual depravity—or, at the very least, gross. And they test your conscience, making you question your moral compass. These sequences take their time to unfold, and Fennell doesn’t cut away when the thing we’re not sure we want to see happens. That’s the source of the inner turmoil: the realization that, just maybe, you did want to see it happen.
“I’m not interested in making something shocking for the sake of it,” Fennell says. “And there are lots of ways to be shocking that we’re kind of immune to now. To make people really uncomfortable, properly uncomfortable—partly because then they like it—is quite difficult. This is a film designed to be watched in the dark with strangers, because a huge part of the experience and that discomfort requires that dynamic.”
To that end, she’s witnessed audience members giggle nervously, sit in stunned silence, gasp, whisper (or shout) “No!” at the screen, and shriek in horror, particularly at the first moment that hints at the film’s darker pivot—the one that involves the cum and the bathwater. “But also, it was like [the response to watching] Elvis,” she says. “It was that kind of scream of horror and elation, one that’s sort of primal.”
Whatever one’s opinions of that scene and the ones that follow may be (and we expect there will be many), there is something cathartic about the release it offers. We’re conditioned to feel shameful or perverted for enjoying a scene so deviant. It’s freeing to watch a film and give into the unshakable desire to just want everyone to kiss, bang, and get naked, even in the dirtiest way possible. (And, once you see the film, you’ll understand how “dirty” will take on a new meaning.)
Casting certainly helps an audience cross that ambiguous moral line. Fennell seemed to know what she was doing, then, in casting Irish Oscar nominee Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin), who radiates a masculinity that’s somehow both menacing and adorable, and Hot Movie Star of the Moment Elordi (Euphoria, Priscilla). It’s not hard to buy Elordi as someone who inspires such an intense, ultimately dangerous devotion. Fennell introduces him in Saltburn as, essentially, the most gorgeous man in the world, perspiration trickling down his muscles like a pheromone personified on screen.
“I think that people would lick him to death, taking a molecule off at a time.”
Fennell was charmed by Elordi when she first met him, but hadn’t realized the enormity of his fame or how fervent fans’ thirst for his hotness was. “It was silly of me to have not really comprehended it,” she says. “I think that people would lick him to death, taking a molecule off at a time.”
“It’s not just beauty,” she clarifies. “There’s charisma. It’s the same with Barry. It’s the same with all of them. That’s the whole point of the film, really. You just don’t know if people are going to fuck each other or kill each other.”
She laughs. “That’s what all films should be in the end, isn’t it? If you’re goth at heart, they’re the only two things that drive anything, I suppose.”
More of our conversation with Fennell, talking through some of the film’s biggest spoilers, will publish next week.
The Daily Beast