Saltburn: What do students think about one of the most divisive films of the year?

Cover image courtesy of Little Theatre Cinema

Editor’s note: The Oscars are here, a night celebrating the greatest films of the year. Bath Time decided it was time that we focused on one of the year’s most divisive films: Saltburn. It is safe to say that every person capable of breathing has an opinion on this film, and for many Bath Time Contributors not putting their opinions into a Bath Time article could have been catastrophic. Together, we’ve composed a collection of ruminations on this cultural phenomenon, as an ode to the way that Saltburn provoked our intellectual curiosity, regardless of whether we found it to be a good film or not.

Saltburn: An enjoyable (if slightly lost) romp by Ellie Insley

The release of Saltburn on Prime Video over Christmas meant that many families decided to sit down together and watch the film for some festive entertainment. This led to the very amusing TikTok trend of filming unsuspecting family member’s (usually outraged parents) reactions to the most shocking scenes in the film. While I thoroughly enjoyed the collective disbelief prompted by some of the movie’s more depraved scenes, Saltburn is arguably too reliant on the shock factor for the development of its plot. 

As was the case with her directorial debut Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell builds anticipation (and almost gives audiences whiplash) in Saltburn with almost relentless plot twists. However, I would argue that these shocking moments are far less gratuitous in Promising Young Woman and that they perhaps build to a far more coherent conclusion. In Saltburn, it feels as though the plot has been engineered to unjustifiably startle audiences. There is no doubt that I greatly enjoyed the themes of indulgence and transgression that Saltburn explores, but certain scenes feel as though they have been meticulously crafted to elicit a response rather than further the plot. 

However, one aspect of Saltburn that I found particularly enjoyable was the dialogue. Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Elspeth Catton was genuinely hilarious (“They probably don’t have rehab in Liverpool” is one of my favourite Elspeth quotes). She’s out of touch, deadpan and, above all, painfully upper class. While Pike’s depiction of a completely absent-minded woman from the landed gentry seems to be a dig at the upper class, Saltburn’s social commentary is elsewhere rather confused. Are we supposed to root for usurper Oliver (Barry Keoghan) in his crusade for upper-class status, or pity the Cattons for the utter derailment of their peaceful lives of decadence?

Overall, I think that Saltburn is a very enjoyable (if slightly flimsy) film. It certainly feels geared towards a younger audience that is likely to appreciate the aesthetically pleasing cinematography and nostalgic noughties soundtrack but, as a social commentary, I’m not quite sure if the film has decided whether it wants to tear down or eulogise the English upper classes. 

Was Saltburn actually a good movie, or did it just have Jacob Elordi in it? by Nina Carter

Like many others, I was eager to be one of the first to watch the movie Saltburn and be transported back to 2006 – when iPods were the coolest things to own and playing Brick Breaker on a Blackberry phone was a good way to spend the afternoon. 

Saltburn is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which is briefly referenced in the movie, in its portrayal of an intense almost homoerotic (at least on one side) friendship as we follow Oliver’s obsession with Felix. Oliver’s desire to be Felix grows until he destroys his family and inherits Saltburn as his own in the last scene where he dances around naked to Murder on the Dancefloor. Featuring a very nostalgic playlist as well as some visually stunning cinematography it is an enjoyable watch and catches all the beauty of an English summer.

I enjoyed the movie when I first watched it – the period of 2006 was well portrayed from the first edition Harry Potter novels that were read or Felix’s iconic eyebrow stud. I loved the development of Oliver Quick throughout the movie. As his obsession with Felix grows, his body changes as well. He evolves from a small and quiet boy, into physically embodying Jacob Elordi. He physically becomes the man he was obsessing over not just in becoming the owner of Saltburn and living Felix’s life, but also in his physical appearance. For a movie which has its core theme of obsession, I love this transition of Oliver that gradually becomes more obvious throughout the movie.

However, let’s think about some of the criticisms of Saltburn. Is the plot line overtaken by the macabre and unsettling sex scenes? Does the plot even really have any significance to a contemporary audience? For a film that is supposed to poke at the hypocrisy and privilege of the elite, it was still something that Oliver became obsessed with and eventually became himself. Oliver embodies Felix, walking around the house he now owns on the same tour he had on his first day at Saltburn. Instead of elitism being portrayed as a negative thing, it stays the goal of Oliver and the movie ends when he finally becomes a part of the inner circle himself. Oliver maintains a silent yet intense pursuit of being a member of the British elite, killing and manipulating those around him and seemingly suffering no consequences. I personally love movies that spark debate and controversy, however rather than tackling a taboo topic and putting a new spin on it, it instead uses its attractive cast members and controversial sex scenes to cause scandal, rather than a meaningful idea or perspective on class struggles provoking discussion. Saltburn seems a more desperate attempt to cause controversy by whatever means, rather than having a unique and thought-provoking plot line.

It is perhaps a little disappointing because I admired Emerald Fennel’s previous movie Promising Young Woman – a horror turned revenge comedy about rape. The director loves exploring controversial topics, but whereas in Promising Young Woman where humour was used to draw emphasis on the long-term effects of rape on a victim and those around them, it seems sex is used to distract from the already diluted message of the film. Watching the movie is very similar to entering the maze in the centre of the garden at Saltburn, for whoever enters it loses their way immediately and then suddenly stumbles across the middle, bewildered, and slightly confused as to what is going on.

Saltburn: A divisive, if barren, spectacle by Ella Rowlands

Since its release in November last year, many of us have been gripped, even a little traumatised, by ‘Saltburn’. Oscar–winner Emerald Fennell has brought us a tantalisingly sordid satire, which follows Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a shy, awkward fresher who befriends aristocratic party animal Felix (Jacob Elordi) at Oxford, and soon Oliver is invited to Felix’s country estate, Saltburn. We are lured into the world of the eccentric Catton family who take pity on Oliver; however, he is not the feeble, mild personality he initially seems, and through a variety of frequent and effective plot twists Saltburn becomes his kingdom, where normal rules don’t apply. 

This film likely came to your attention because of the shocking, stomach-churning scenes which have caused a frenzy on social media. These scenes undoubtedly make ‘Saltburn’ the outlandish sensation that it is and are a prime example of the dark, gothic undertones which have captivated many viewers. However, some of the jaw-dropping scenes which have got us all talking do not add much substance to the film and seem to have been created with the sole purpose of rattling us. This is not necessarily a bad quality, I’m sure many of us enjoy being thrilled by a film, however, it does make the movie seem a bit hollow. Moreover, as the film progresses it becomes clear that none of the characters are likeable and despite the glamourous cinematography, it is difficult to truly fall in love with the film when there is nobody relatable to empathise with. 

Understandably this film has divided its audience: those who adore it and those who hate it. However, I feel that there is also a sizeable percentage of the audience who, like me, are somewhat in the middle. ‘Saltburn’ is evidently a unique film, seemingly a future cult classic, and it was hard not to be mesmerised by its aesthetic and nostalgic feel. However, when thinking about the film, both the plot and the characters lacked substance, this does not mean that I would not recommend ‘Saltburn’ as it does provide a two-hour escape from reality.

Saltburn – scandalous spectacle and imitation by Elliot Rose

Saltburn is a film that exists within a shadow of another- The Talented Mr Ripley – and there are many similarities, both within the plot and those that are more thematic, that convey themselves (to me at least) as a scandalous imitation. We see two protagonists- Oliver Quick and Tom Ripley- who are gifted, neurotic, liars, ingratiating themselves with beautiful, wealthy, and desirable (but flawed and naïve) characters to climb up either the social or economic ladder and taste the high life. In both films, our protagonists develop a parasocial, romantic obsession with two sexual icons (and the force for our protagonists’ sycophant-mania). This leads to murder, enveloped through the rage that Quick and Ripley feel out of the rejection of whatever monomania exists in their inarguably brilliant but toxic and destructive minds, like a hoard of locusts to the contexts in which they perspire.  

When I first uncovered the premise of Saltburn as conveyed from the trailers, the film felt like a stone turned before. Thirty minutes into the film I unearthed a feeling of déjà vu as Oliver Quick is introduced and awakened to the life of the privileged. At the moment of Felix’s murder, my head was in my hands, both at the absurdly Ripley phenomenon that I was witnessing like a security guard uncovering a bank heist, and my disappointment as the film then unfolded in an incredibly predictable fashion like The Talented Mr Ripley.  

Some of you may say ‘So? Are all films not somewhat like another one before them?’. To this, I say that the disappointment lies within the context. Emerald Fennell, director of Saltburn, happens to be one of the most radical upcoming directors out there. Her previous film, Promising Young Women, is perhaps the most provocative film on the concept of gender rights over the last few years. I find that it is a real shame that Fennell can leap from such a project to Saltburn which came across as being so unoriginal. Whilst it could have gone down the root of films such as Parasite – which make politically incendiary observations about class conflict in Korea- Saltburn goes limp, and its commentary on class lacks this same clarity and falls to the prospect of pure spectacle. Quick barrels his way through a weak-minded, decadent upper class that one feels sympathy for due to their helplessness, and a less attentive eye may dream of joining their hedonistic lifestyle rather than comprehending the structures that hold them in place as unjust. 

Every week From Monday to Thursday, students under the age of 25 can go to the Little Theatre Cinema in Bath for as little as £4.99. This is part of the free Picturehouse U25 membership, you can sign up through the link here.

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