Chicago International Film Festival 2023: Saltburn – Sexy, Shocking Cinema

With her sophomore feature, Emerald Fennell has cooked up another film that is sure to get audiences and critics stirring. Now two films in, it seems safe to say this is the mode she wants to exist in, for better or worse. The new film stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver, a young student at Oxford in 2006. He’s a bit of an outcast and takes a liking to the much more popular Felix, played by Jacob Elordi. Oliver befriends Felix, they become very close, and eventually, Felix invites Oliver to his family’s sprawling estate for the summer. It is a very simple setup, one that works very well, and we are off to the races. Saltburn is well-paced, getting us to this point within the first half hour and then we’re able to lock into the oddities with Felix’s family and some of the strangeness that appears to be in their recent history. There’s a really fun cast of characters and actors that fill the house: Rosamund Pike as his mom, Richard E. Grant as his dad, Alison Oliver as the sister, Archie Madekwe as the cousin who is also staying with them, and an entertaining performance from Paul Rhys as the family butler.

Saltburn. Dir. Emerald Fennell.

Fennell clearly has the sensibilities of a talented filmmaker. The film is very well shot, staged, directed, acted, and laid out. The production design and use of the location with the Saltburn estate can’t be overstated; it’s a gorgeous movie, and that’s before you even get to the inherent sexuality of its lead actors. The magnetic draw of Elordi’s reminds me of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, as the emerging leader and ready-made actor of the pack. He is the masculine ideal our lead character looks up to. The relationship between Felix and Oliver also evokes that of Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). The similarities there feel so direct you would have to imagine Fennell viewed that as an influence. The film falls apart in the final third, descending into a series of provocations that succeed to varying degrees, designed to elicit a reaction from the audience. Granted, many of these did work on our festival audience. One of the earlier ones involving a bathtub works best. However, as we progress towards the finish line and these very intentionally constructed moments become more frequent, losing their effect as they go on coupled with the completely unsurprising “twist” minutes before cutting to credits, the resolution of the film is not only unsatisfying but quite off-putting.

The ending of this film and its series of provocative scenes leading up to it, both violent and erotic in nature, hearken back to Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman (2021). That film was widely acclaimed and beloved by many, even scoring a slew of Oscar nominations and a win for Fennell’s screenplay. However, the film also drew the backlash of pointed discourse online, specifically in response to its ending and the note its central character goes out on. It is easy to imagine this film having a similar trajectory, however, at this point, it doesn’t look as though similar Oscars recognition will be in the cards. The film has many strengths, giving juicy material for its cast to work off of and showing Fennell to be a visual stylist who we will be sure to see more of in the future, and yet we can’t help but wonder if thriving off being overly provocative will continue to pay dividends. Maybe now it’s time for something different, something more.


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