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Emerald Fennel’s Saltburn: A Masterclass on Punishing your Audience

Photo by Courtesy of Prime - © Amazon Content Services LLC

Staff Writer Charley Dennis examines how Emerald Fennel’s Saltburn manipulates and moulds the audience to fall in and out of love with the Characters and narrative of her movie.

Content Warning: This article contains graphic sexual content

(This article contains spoilers)

Emerald Fennel’s newest release Saltburn offers a dark and coarse story of the demise of a family and filthy deeds which led to up it. The film tells the story of Oliver, a quiet scholarship kid, who meets the dashing Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi, in their first term at Oxford University – before later spending the summer at Felix’ mansion home Saltburn.

Their time at Saltburn begins as grandiose dinners and lounging in the sun as Oliver is welcomed into the family but things slowly begin to change. Farleigh, Felix’s cousin played by Archie Madekwe, begins to resent Oliver’s place in their home which pushes Oliver to reveal more about himself than assumed. His time at Saltburn reveals the cracks in the Saltburn family dynamic – the ones which bring them to their knees in the tragic final act.

One of the most striking aspects of this film is the way Fennell employs the male body – constant and unapologetic. Oliver and Felix stripping nude out in the field, steaming in the tub, or bathing by the pond are among the shots the audience are blessed with – however, these are pivotal scenes to the film. Felix’ obsession with Oliver drives the entire movie – it moves the plot, creates the tension, and arguably causes us to fall in love with these characters. Fennel achieves this so perfectly as the audience completely understands the appeal of Elordi’s character – confident, intoxicatingly wealthy, and undeniably sexy. Fennell does not satiate the audience with these men for the sake of it, it plays into her story.

Fennel does more with the use the male body and homoeroticism than most – she pulls you in, and then she repulses you. The prior mentioned bathtub scene is one of the most shocking pieces of film most people will experience this year. The scene depicts Oliver watching Felix masturbate in the bathtub before he dresses and leaves. What follows is an extended trauma-inducing scene of Oliver slurping the dregs of bathwater from the bottom of the tub – a grotesque portrayal of Oliver’s obsession with Felix, but also an unwavering punishment of the audience for our own attraction to Felix.

The movie is told through Oliver’s eyes – it’s his story and we relate to him through our mutual love of Felix. Fennel constructs Oliver as an underdog and somebody who needs the audience’s support – but throughout the movie we are punished for our unquestioned alliance with this mysterious character. This scene makes you both recoil at the image of somebody drinking bathwater but also completely question your prior understanding of Oliver’s character.

It seems that this homoerotic subtext is part of a grander mission: an exposé on power. The scene depicting Oliver sneaking into Farleigh’s bed is a striking example of this: a scene which reveals a powerful and manipulative side to Oliver. Following Farleigh embarrassing Oliver in front of the entire family and weaponizing his own power, Oliver sneaks into his room later that night. The audience is forced to watch him grab Farleigh between the legs and commands him to ‘behave’ before making him orgasm. The power which he holds over Farleigh in this scene is brutally on display and subverts his submissive role being both poorer and a guest to this wealthy family. The imaginative use of sex and power in this scene begins the unravelling of the story into its third act and warns the audience of the scenes to come.

The shot of Felix’s corpse lying in the maze wearing the golden wings illustrates the final face of his relationship to Oliver. After Felix uncovers Oliver’s lies about his childhood, a final confrontation ends in Felix’s piteous murder. The overhead shot of Felix’s body parades him as a fallen angel as Fennel reminds us one last time of the beauty of this character, and the tragedy of his death. The dramatic end for Felix’s character is another punishment for adoring, like Oliver, this figure of a man. But a more impactful punishment comes from the crushing of our fantasy that their friendship could’ve been much more. Oliver, and the film’s image of homoeroticism, finally comes to appear volatile and dangerous.

This exploration of homoeroticism and sexuality seems refreshing in an age of cinema which is so obsessed with pacifying queer relationships and producing an image which can appeal to all areas of society. The prominence of media such as ‘Heartstopper’ or ‘Young Royals, although important, is beginning to stale. The focus on producing child-friendly and reined in depictions of sexual diversity needed offending. The normative boundary of sexuality is completely trampled in this film and Fennel seems to revel in her crime. Her unapologetic use of kink and unquestioned sexual fluidity of characters produces an exciting world – if slightly ridiculous.

She has created a film which is both undeniably tempting and undeniably grotesque, or as she puts it: ‘you look once and it’s beautiful and you look again, and it’s disgusting’.

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