Reflecting on Saltburn: A trendy or timeless film about class divide?

19/03/2024

Edie Bell-Brown explores the meanings behind Saltburn, the film that took the internet by storm

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Image by IMDb

By Edie Bell-Brown

Jacob Elordi’s eyebrow piercing. 2000s fashion. Period sex. Drug-filled parties. Barry Keoghan dancing naked to ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’. That’s right, the film that’s swept the nation Saltburn, by up-and-coming director Emerald Fennell. But apart from the obvious visual aesthetics and insufferably attractive cast, why is the internet so obsessed with a film that attempts to comment on class division?

The film follows Oliver, played by Barry Keoghan, who has just started studying at Oxford University. He  is seemingly helpless, coming from a troubled, low-income background. He meets the gorgeous and privileged Felix, played by Jacob Elordi, and instantly becomes obsessed with him. As their friendship grows, Felix invites Oliver to stay at his family’s enormous estate, ‘Saltburn’, over the summer of 2007. There are certainly parallels between Saltburn and the novels Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley as both also blur the lines between love and obsession, and wealth and privilege.

The ’tiktokification’ of Saltburn has certainly reduced the film down to its aesthetically pleasing cinematography, and even more its star-studded cast. A lot of the film’s attention has stemmed from Hollywood heartthrob Jacob Elordi playing a leading role, and he has never looked better. The irony is that our obsession with Elordi’s appearance in the film is that it is exactly what Felix’s complex character represents. He is, as director Emerald Fennell described him in her GQ interview, “shallow, callous, and not that clever”, but as she explains, he doesn’t need to be because he is attractive and charming and has more money than he knows what to do with. If you are on TikTok, then you probably know what ‘the Jacob Elordi edit’ is. A montage of clips featuring Elordi from Saltburn has reached 61.5 million views and 8.2 million likes.

There is certainly something so attractive and fascinating about Saltburn, and it’s not just a topless Jacob Elordi. Director Emerald Fennell came from a high-class background herself. She attended Oxford University and is the daughter of a high-end jewellery designer. So is she truly to comment on Britain’s flawed class system? The film seems to attempt to fuel the ‘eat the rich’ narrative, yet simultaneously fails to truly criticise the elite.

However, the film was criticised for its portrayal of Oliver’s motives. At the beginning of the film it is seemingly obvious that Oliver comes from a low-class background with drug-fuelled and alcoholic parents, whose dad has supposedly died. Yet there is a turning point in the film, where Oliver and Felix go to Oliver’s childhood house to discover that he comes from an ordinary middle-class background, and both his parents are very much alive and healthy. So, at the end, when Oliver recalls the events and we learn it was all a meticulously cultivated plan from the very beginning, we can't help but ask why as Oliver was middle class himself.

Additionally, Saltburn's captivation of social media directly links to the film’s meaning. Many audiences do not understand, or care about the true intentions of the film, but instead are there for the visuals and star-studded cast, much like Oliver when he stays at Saltburn. Do we see ourselves in Oliver? Oliver is obsessed with all things shiny and pretty: Felix, Saltburn, and money. Despite being from a comfortable background, there is still a distance between Oliver and the Cattons. He desires to become ‘one of them’ and despite his obvious love for Felix, he is an obstacle in his way that must be removed along with the rest of the family.

Another critique of the film is how the Cattons are arguably more likeable than Oliver, despite the fact that the audience are meant to be rooting for him. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant play Elsbeth and James, Felix’s parents. They are extremely likeable characters. Yes, they may say some cruel things and be hyper-privileged, but they certainly aren’t evil. Perhaps it’s too close to home for Emerald Fennell to villainise characters that may perhaps mirror her own family and friends.

At the end of the film, Oliver successfully covets his position as the new owner of Saltburn and the Catton’s wealth. It is undivided whether he is hero or villain, as he fit the Iago from Othello archetype, who carefully weaved his web around the whole of the Catton family as Venetia calls him in the film, he is ‘spiderman.’ We should be rooting for Oliver, and the downfall of the insufferable wealthy, yet instead, viewers seem to romanticise the Cattons and emulate their lifestyle.

One trend on Tik Tok, shows people who do live in Saltburn-esque mansions and castles, imitating Oliver’s final celebratory dance to ‘Murder on the Dance Floor.’ In the current cost of living crisis in the UK this seems distasteful, as people want to showcase the luxury of their lavish homes and aristocratic lifestyle. The irony here is that the Catton’s fate results from how out of touch and facile they are, much like the people we watch in these videos. The trend has a mocking tone to it, as the film supposedly acts as a warning, a cautionary tale of the dangers of those who boast and brag about their wealth and possessions. If people understood the film's meaning, they would be hiding in their mansions, not parading in them. Yet for these TikTokers, they emulate Oscar, to ridicule the possibility that a series of ‘Saltburn’ events could happen in their lives.

So, does Saltburn have what it takes to become a classic? I think it's safe to say no. Despite the amusing storyline, memorable scenes, and brilliant performances the A-list cast delivers, Fennell succeeds in entertaining rather than educating. She seems to have gone for a more satirical intention; the classist approach is there without creating political the desired impact. Instead, she has achieved the shock factor as audiences leave the cinema remembering those three ‘disturbing’ scenes that everyone knows about, rather than discussing the meaning behind the film. The superficial TikTok trends, fan-made edits, and ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ being played in every nightclub, shows the film’s attempt at class commentary has failed, if it ever was truly there at all.