By Sam Lawton-Westerland
***Major spoilers for the movie Saltburn (2023)***
Now that the hype has died down around Emerald Fennell's controversial new film Saltburn with its portrayal of upper-class decadence, we can begin examining the film's underlying themes. Here, Fennell turns her gaze from the gendered meanings of justice presented in Promising Young Woman to the enduring politics of class in 2000s Britain.
The film stars Barry Keoghan as the middle-class Oliver Quick in a wonderful, acrobatic performance. We are introduced to Oliver reflecting on his relationship with Felix Catton (played with perfect effete cadence by Jacob Elordi), an upper-class boy whom he meets and quickly falls for. In this initial monologue, where Oliver mulls his relationship with Felix clad in a black suit and monogramed lighter, we have the first conceit of the film: we believe that this is a love story between two men from different class backgrounds.
Flashback to Oxford, on the first day of term. We see Oliver, a fresh faced scholarship student looking like Will from the Inbetweeners, mocked for his suit and tie by Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), which careful viewers will notice does not match his professed working class status. It's clear that Oliver's lower class status exiles him as a social outcast, with his classmate Michael Gavey (played with excellent grubbiness by Ewan Mitchell) welcoming him to the lowest rung of Oxford society with resentful incel energy. Michael points out that, despite this being a new term, everyone already knows each other. Oliver's classes are much the same, with his professor and Farleigh having a familial connection. The film reflects the very real inequalities that persist in higher education, still revolving around the elite playgrounds of Oxford and Cambridge.
Oliver wishes to escape his position in the social underclass by worming his way in to Felix's social circle, to the annoyance of Farleigh, Felix's cousin. We learn through Felix's interaction with Oliver that his parents suffer from severe mental health problems and addiction, for which Felix provides some sympathy. After worrying that Felix is growing apart from Oliver, Oliver bursts in to Felix's room, tearfully telling him that his father has died. This leads Felix to invite him to stay at his family home, Saltburn, which Felix unironically states was an inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.
The film pivots here from Brideshead to The Talented Mr Ripley, showing us that Oliver is an unreliable narrator and a manipulator; it culminates in his psychopathic intent towards Felix and his family. For all of the subtleties in Ripley, Saltburn has no holds barred, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Oliver's bisexuality is aligned to his deviousness and ruthlessness as a character, fucking anything in order to manipulate the situation he is engrossed within. He is a bisexual saboteur, destabilising both the family in which he is embroiled with and the homo/hetero binary. His polymorphous perversity, his willingness to go to any length to seemingly fuck every member of the Catton family (with the exception of Richard E Grant's hilarious Sir James), is coded as monstrous in the film. Despite this, Oliver's desire is directed towards Felix, cinematically echoing another bisexual film that is frequently misread: Call Me By Your Name. The film portrays Oliver's sexuality as aberrant and pseudo-incestuous with his obsession with the family.
After a cringe-inducing sequence involving Felix exposing Oliver's deception that he is in fact from a mild-mannered middle class family, the finale of the film reveals that Oliver had contrived from the start to gain Felix's trust and usurp it for his own means. After a carnivalesque sequence of Oliver's costumed birthday party, where a horned Oliver tries desperately to worm his way back in to Felix's favour, Felix rejects him, leading to Oliver killing Felix and, after the funeral, having sex with the mound of earth that covers his body whilst weeping. This stark image sums up the themes of the film: the obsessive, unrequited love/hate relationship that the aspiring middle class has for the upper class.
The film delivers its second twist: Oliver hated Felix. He resented his inability to work hard. Hard work, for Oliver, is exploitation and manipulation. Here we see the film's thesis come together: that the upper-class have wealth through inheritance and birth right, while Oliver's middle-class notions of wealth are associated with acquisition and malicious intent. The ways of the upper class as a leisure class are threatened. In what ways does this film satirize middle-class ambition, or rather, does it reveal the anxieties of the upper class themselves? They eternally fear their usurpation by the aspiring middle class. In the environment of the 2000s, pre-financial crisis, we see Oliver thriving through blood and cunning.
Here, Oliver represents the ascendant middle class, gently but violently pushing up against a naïve and lazy upper class who show no resistance and are destroyed as a result. Their foolish underestimations of Oliver are their ultimate downfall. Lady Elspeth (played pitch-perfectly by Rosamund Pike) lets the wolf in the door after her family's death, and pays for it with her life, after Oliver poisons and destroys her. In a triumphant scene, Oliver stands victorious over her hospital bed after melodramatically ripping out her breathing tube.
The final scene , where Oliver gleefully parades around the many grand rooms of Saltburn to the tune of Murder on the Dancefloor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, serves as a cautionary tale for the upper class in the folly of inviting anyone in to their estate: showing any kind of generosity or compassion will lead to your ruin; your home will be invaded, your children slaughtered, and your culture reduced to tastelessness. It also serves as a test for those who profess to want to eat the rich: can you stomach it?
Sam Lawton-Westerland is a researcher, writer and activist working at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Sam teaches sociology and researches gender and sexuality, with an interest in political sociology and anarchism.