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What You Missed In Saltburn

A second look at Saltburn’s characters and imagery

Emerald Fennell’s 2023 film Saltburn was branded to us as the darker sequel to 2017’s coming-of-age romantic drama Call Me By Your Name with a backdrop of even more exorbitant wealth. Yet as I watched Saltburn for the first time, I’d never felt more deceived in my life. From all of the trailers it seemed like it was going to be a romance for sure, maybe even a modern tragedy, but what Saltburn turned out to be is a modern thriller with more twists than you can imagine. This movie is riddled with so many different references and proves itself to be an amalgamation of all things literature, pop culture, and the recent past. Even after seeing countless confused TikToks reviews and hearing about many other people’s stunned reactions, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this movie. Yet, beyond the shock value, Saltburn is filled to the brim with substance and social commentary pointing out our current societal reality.

One of the highlights of Saltburn is its complex characters. Oliver (Barry Keoghan), the main character, is initially presented as an earnest university student that is very bright but has few friends. Every single character in the movie plays a supporting role in Oliver’s story, and through his lens they are exposed for who they truly are. However, this lens also blinds us as to who Oliver truly is. The only character to see Oliver’s true self is his first friend at university, Michael (Ewan Mitchell). Michael’s presence in the film is extremely fleeting, but his final word to Oliver, “boot-licker,” is the first accurate characterization of Oliver that the audience receives. Through their brief friendship, the two seemingly bond over their status as social pariahs, and although it is later revealed that Michael’s negative opinion of Oliver was correct, because the audience sees everything through Oliver’s point of view, Michael initially comes across as bitter and petty.

The first member of the wealthy Catton family that Oliver encounters is Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). Even his name seems like he’s overcompensating for the grand lifestyle that he longs to be a part of. Farleigh enters the film late, unprepared, and with stray glitter on his cheeks to the tutorial that he shares with Oliver. This scene sets up everything you need to know about his character: he has a flippant attitude towards life, parties regularly, and faces no consequences at school because of his mother’s social status. The professor blatantly favors Farleigh solely because of who he is connected to, and not due to his actual work (which he fails to do). To put it bluntly, Farleigh’s status does all the work for him so he doesn’t have to.

Oliver’s next Catton family interaction is with Felix (Jacob Elordi). Felix is also shown to be someone who doesn’t care about academics, largely due to his obscene wealth. In one scene, Felix both literally and metaphorically uses Oliver to get to where he needs to go. He takes Oliver’s bicycle, and assumes that Oliver will go the extra mile to help him further, even after Oliver has already offered his only means of transportation. Although Felix doesn’t seem to take advantage of Oliver overtly, he does establish a hierarchy between the two of them. This introductory scene begs the question: does Felix know the effect that he has on people?

I think one of the most well-concealed parts of Saltburn is Felix and Farleigh’s similarities. Throughout the film it is clear that they are set up to foil one another, as Farleigh wields his privilege as a weapon and Felix’s belief that his wealth “didn’t matter” ending up to be the greatest blunder of them all.

Felix desperately wanted to be a hero and save Oliver. For example, he never tells Oliver that he needs a suit for dinners at Saltburn, just so he can swoop in and help. Felix’s dangling of the carrot of wealth in front of Oliver’s face for the summer was just as selfish and rude as Farleigh’s treatment of Oliver. With all of his wealth and status, Felix could do something meaningful in the lives of the friends that he invites over to his sprawling mansion. Instead he gives them a taste, sends them on their way, and is able to feel better about his obscene wealth.

Even in his death, Felix is made out to be this beautiful, tragic martyr. Felix is masqueraded around the entire movie as a faultless victim, an angel in fact, while he does things like meddle with Oliver’s life and condescendingly “help” him. In comparison, Farleigh does similarly meddlesome things, such as snooping on Oliver and Venetia (Alison Oliver)’s rendezvous. But because he is depicted in the movie as a devious and petty guy he doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt that Felix does. What makes Farleigh’s behavior so deplorable to the audience is that instead of embracing Oliver, as he understands what it’s like not to fully belong with the family, he’s the most rude to him. Unfortunately, his act does not get him anywhere with the family.

Saltburn doesn’t only rely on characterization to tell its complex story. The film is riddled with symbolism that begins to reveal the nature of Oliver’s plot long before the movie itself gives him away. In fact, the very first shot of the film suggests that Oliver is perpetrating something sinister at the Saltburn estate. The film opens on a shot of a family crest. The camera captures the crest on a cigarette holder then pans to Oliver’s hand holding a cigarette. This is a glaring example of foreshadowing that I completely missed on my first watch.

Later in the film, it is revealed that in Felix’s family, when someone dies they write their name on a stone and throw that stone into the water. As the boys get closer, Felix decides to do this for Oliver’s dad. However when thrown, the stone never hits the water. In fact, the camera reveals that it fell among a pile of trash and vomit. This is not only overt symbolism that Oliver is full of lies, but also that Oliver’s dad is not actually dead.

In the very first scene inside the Saltburn estate, on the chandelier hangs a strip of fly paper riddled with dead bugs. This figuratively displays that behind such a rich and opulent facade, the family is not so much better off than the rest of us. The fly paper serves to cheapen the scene, but also represents the presence of death. Once Felix dies, the shots in the movie are asymmetrical. It seems as though with his death, the family is placed into a disjointed state of overwhelming grief. While talking about his death is initially largely forbidden, all characters are extremely affected by it.

Saltburn’s story is one that is ridiculously complex; it can’t even be fully understood with even two watches. This film covers the intersection of the wealthy and privileged with the rest of the population. Saltburn’s release seems to coincide with increasing discourse on the wealth gap as billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos seem to operate in a different stratosphere than the rest of us. In a sense, Saltburn is allowing all of us to exact our revenge on the people who are born into unfair advantages. Right before the final credits roll, as Oliver dances around the house, sans clothes and full of abandon, do we dance along with him for the successful toppling of the undeserving rich, or do we hum “Murder on the Dancefloor” to ourselves?