Why Critics Are Wrong About Saltburn

Published December 29, 2023

Courtesy of IMDb

Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature, Saltburn (2023), has been called “profoundly anti-upward mobility,” and a film with nothing to say beyond shock value. Wesley Morris, critic-at-large for the New York Times, posits that the film articulates its message of toxic elitism in such a rudimentary manner that it may as well have been spelled out with “Ikea assembly instructions.” In what is probably its most merciless and loathing review, Ione Gamble of Polyester Zine—the preeminent specialist of all things cinema, girlhood, and pop culture—published a podcast episode titled “Why We Hate Saltburn: Classism, Depravity And Why Rich People So Often Make Bad Art.” 

However, while most critics are largely unimpressed, the overwhelming reaction of Letterboxd users, hobbyist bloggers, university publications, and the resoundingly united TikTok fangirls, has been one of excitement and childlike wonder. This is not a novel phenomenon; every year, there seems to be a film that divides critics and extracurricular watchers. On a smaller scale, we saw this just last year with Babylon: critics hated it, yet the hoi polloi seemed to love it. Vulture, in typical NYMag fashion, polled their writers on the Saltburn divide in their aptly-named Bop Or Flop? column. While half seemed to think it was a mess, the other half found it to be a satisfyingly hot mess.  

Having lived half of my life in London, England, and the other half in the U.S., I appreciated the bullseye satire of the English aristocracy in Fennell’s Saltburn. The humor doesn’t lay simply in her portrayal of their stiff upper-lips, their blatantly inappropriate and cruel jokes, and their suspicion of plebeians like newcomer Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan). That would be cliché and only funny-ish, because the countryside estate caché is already available in any ‘90s rom-com starring Hugh Grant. 

Instead, Fennell’s wicked wit takes shape in Felix Catton’s (Jacob Elordi) “What Happens in Kassiopi, Stays in Kassiopi” t-shirt (most certainly a souvenir from his leaver’s trip) and the slick and Sloaney cadence with which his mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) boasts that Pulp’s “Common People” was written about her (“You’ll never live like common people… / I wanna live with common people like you…”). Her witty wardrobe choices serve to punctuate witty depictions of class division between the characters, with the Cattons portrayed as undeniably effortless while their subordinates are suited up to perform. Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) typifies the combination of an outlandish King’s Road luxury-trashy wardrobe and the remarkably low self-esteem of a girl locked away at a repressive, single-sex “public” school. Meanwhile, Duncan the butler serves judgemental looks directed at Oliver (Keoghan) while clad in crisp suiting with perfect posture. Elspeth floats around the grounds in bohemian vintage gowns rather than restrictive English suiting, and Felix’s linen shirts are tastefully crinkled, breathing to his form and fluttering in the sunshine with angelic ease. Costume designer Sophie Canale intentionally dressed Felix in worn-down designer garments, giving him an aura of carefree effortlessness. Contrastingly, Oliver’s tight and starchy suits betray him as an obvious imposter. 

Ultimately, the joke isn’t the characters’ grotesque wealth: it’s the laughable tendency of Britain’s most elite to wish they were “Common People” while simultaneously repudiating them. When asked by producers why she chose to mar Jacob Elordi’s handsome face with an eyebrow piercing (which he takes out when returning home to his estate, obviously), Fennell responded, “If you have never been round the back of a nightclub with a boy with an eyebrow piercing and then cried into your kebab later, you have no skin in this game.”

Fennell’s most ardent critics are keen to note that her skin is, undeniably, in this game. Entangled in most reviews snubbing the film is the intentionally damning “side-note” that Fennell is a member of the upper-echelons herself. It is true that Fennell went to Oxford, and that her father, Theo Fennell, has gained a reputation as the “King of Bling” jeweler to Elton John and Madonna. If that weren’t telling enough, her 18th birthday was featured in Tatler, an elitist London-based publication known for “The Tatler List”—a list of the UK’s “in-crowd,” from patrons of the arts to The Archbishop of Canterbury to a socialite named Scarlet, “one of the prettiest and most popular girls in London.” However, employing Fennell’s privileged background as a tool for critiquing her Oscar-winning work—not unlike past disparagement of Sofia Coppola’s filmography due to her being Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter—seems to echo an all-too-familiar pattern of misogynistic criticism that overlooks individual merit. 

In Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure, Anna Backman Rogers laments how critics read Coppola’s work myopically through the lens of her own family history as Hollywood royalty and her white female privilege, leading to the assumption that each one of her works is a “hermetic iteration of her own life.” This, for Rogers, is dangerous, because it exemplifies the pattern of thought that “a woman is too bound up in her own experience and her thoughts (in fact, far too narcissistic) to make work about anything other than her own life.” 

The Evening Standard’s argument for Saltburn’s “profoundly anti-upward mobility” sentiment is rooted in the fact that while Fennell portrays her wealthy characters as shallow and blundering, they are, ultimately, likable, according to Alexandra Jones. Jones argues that the satire falls flat because the antihero (Oliver) is motivated by “pure greed to destroy a poor upper class family.” Instead, she found herself siding with the Cattons, culminating in a depraved rallying cry to “keep an eye on the silverware, lords and ladies, those greedy lower classes want to get their hands on our riches.” This amoral call-to-action would certainly be depraved if it were in the slightest bit true—or at least, if the film were to contain any plea for righteousness at all. However, it does not. 

What critics are getting wrong about Saltburn is that it is not a film about class mobility, but rather, a film about class consciousness—particularly, how the English have more of it than anyone. Because Fennell’s infamous equal-opportunity satire pokes fun at everyone for their hyper-awareness of the antiquated British caste system, it depicts these structures as inherently absurd. Otherwise, the film’s plot and its controversially nonsensical ending (spoiler alert: Oliver kills everyone and ends up with their entire estate) would make sense, and its wealthy characters would have been utterly oblivious to their privilege instead of making it the subject of their dry humor (and frankly, their entire personality). On the contrary, the Cattons are very much aware of their privilege; they only pretend not to be, because this is the cooler thing for rich people to do. 

Felix, when giving Oliver the grand tour of the estate’s ballrooms, hallways, and libraries, makes note of all of its significant (and hilarious) landmarks: “hideous Rubens,” the corner where he accidentally fingered his cousin, an abundance of portraits of “dead rellies,” and “daddy’s teddy.” He then apologizes to Oliver, who unfortunately would have to share a bathroom with Felix, otherwise he would be “miles away on the other side of the house.” With this monologue, Fennell (and Elordi, with a finely-tuned Chelsea dialect that would have you fooled that he is Etonian, not Australian) hits all the bases of wildly out-of-touch generational wealth—gross disregard for exceptional art, casual and accidental incest, and a home so large that its residents are entirely sequestered from the uncomfortable realities of the real world and each other. 

Ironically, the whip-smart comic timing, lush production design, and slick cinematography of Saltburn has been used by critics to further bolster their arguments for the film’s vapidity. The Guardian calls it “a knowingly vibes-forward work” and Vulture titles one of its reviews “Saltburn Is All Vibes and Empty Provocations.” I would argue that Saltburn isn’t rescued by its “vibes” but rather that it is its “vibes.” In Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure, Anna Backman Rogers describes how Coppola’s critics often discredited her work on the basis of her visually-pleasing aesthetics. She references Rosalind Galt’s study of “pretty” images, in which Galt argues that the “rhetoric of cinema has consistently denigrated surface decoration, finding the attractive skin of the screen to be false, shallow, or apolitical.” Although Coppola’s images are consistently “prettier” than Fennell’s often disturbing spectacles, the two filmmakers share an auteurship defined by culturally significant images, and critics who will dismiss them as merely decorative. 

Fennell’s luscious visual and auditory craftsmanship is marked by nostalgic highs (see: drunken karaoke to the tune of Flo Rida’s “Low” and boozy games of sun-soaked tennis), and stomach-turning lows, such as the infamous scenes in which Oliver slurps Felix’s ejaculate-tainted bathwater, and when he gyrates nude on Felix’s freshly turned grave. Although I was momentarily nauseated just recalling those moments, I maintain that Fennell’s decision to embrace theatrics was essential to the film’s message. With the inclusion of a mid-noughties, indie-sleaze aesthetic, Saltburn marries its disgusting elements with its fashionably-dirty ones. 

Through padded push-up bras, smudgy eyeliner, and “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, the film’s production design evokes a hyper-specific Tumblr aesthetic of rockstar girlfriend Alexa Chung, Glastonbury-era Kate Moss, and celebrities going out in last night’s makeup. This time period is right at the precipice of Gen-Z memory. For us, those blurry pre-iPhone pictures of celebrities being messy in clubs are the first “going-out” pictures  we remember, and seeing them echoed on-screen is truly thrilling. With an homage to this era of purposeful grit, Fennell also calls attention to the fact that this aesthetic necessitated privilege, because “shabby-chic” only works if you were “chic” to begin with. By making a parallel between ugliness and intentionally ironic ugliness, Fennell further illustrates the absurdity of class structures and their unceasing presence in British culture. In an interview with AnOther Magazine, Fennell says that much of the film was inspired by how people are “all trying to be dignified in impossibly undignified bodies. Our thoughts and desires aren’t dignified.” Illustrating this would be essential to depicting the absurdity of a modern-day caste system in Saltburn.

My primary criticism of the film is its final sequence:a single tracking shot of Oliver dancing naked through the halls (a triumphant homage to Felix’s initial tour) after he has lied and murdered his way to owning Saltburn. Oliver sashays gleefully to “Murder on the Dance Floor”—Fennell describes the mood as “post-coital”—and the scene is so joyful that the viewer is left feeling uncomfortably complicit. In an interview with Slash Film, Fennell describes how she dug for this exact reaction: the awkward guilt in taking pleasure in this moment of “spontaneous evil glee.” The troubling scene succeeds in this respect;  I won’t lie—I enjoyed it. The problem, however, doesn’t lie in this scene’s perverse morals or its masturbatory excess of nostalgic music coupled with nudity. Instead, the issue is that its timing distracts from the absurdity of the plot up until this point. Saltburn is successfully bizarre enough that it doesn’t necessitate decrying its own weirdness. While Fennell’s thrills are anything but cheap, the final one feels too costly. 

Overall, Saltburn is a film that brims with nuanced ideas, historical allusions, humor, and emotion—and yet, while these elements correlate, they do not spill over into conclusion. The lack of consistent political underpinning does not render the film gimmicky, but rather, the opposite. Fennell discusses class consciousness, but instead of doing this through the lens of a tired and recycled rags-to-riches story, she decides instead to touch upon other issues that she deems worthy of discussion: the damning chokehold of first love, the way only privilege can successfully marry sleaze with style, and the discomfort and terror we feel when life slips out of our control. I would argue that the film is a lot more successful when perceived as a funhouse mirror, not a magnifying glass. Isn’t that a lot more interesting and clever than a film so hermetically sealed in one political ideology that it becomes predictable? In Rites of Passage, William Golding writes, “Our country for all her greatness there is one thing she cannot do and that is translate a person wholly out of one class into another. Perfect translation from one language into another is impossible. Class is the British language.” By forcing her audience into complicity, revulsion, and disgust, Fennell is wielding a translation device rather than attempting to re-write a language. Instead, she demands your attention (and, very likely, your thankless criticism) to a film about the absurdity of Britain’s class inertia. 

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