“I wasn’t in love with him.”

With these six words, we descend into the world of “Saltburn.”

Emerald Fennell ushers us into a universe of depravity and seduction, of vapidity and vacuousness, of the grotesque and the beautiful.

“Saltburn” follows Oliver Quick, played by Barry Keoghan, as he begins his studies as a scholarship student at Oxford University. He is significantly poorer than his peers. This, along with his quiet and demure nature, isolates him from his classmates. He becomes a social pariah, until he meets Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi. Felix is wealthy, beautiful, and godlike. He is the center of the universe, and he grants Oliver access to Oxford’s elite. With this, Oliver develops an obsession with Felix, and the film truly begins.

“Saltburn” paints a complex picture of Oliver’s obsession. We do not understand the feelings that lie underneath the veneer of obsession. We are meant to question whether this is romantic love or if it is something more intricate. The tension in this film stems from Oliver’s motivations. The subtle moments of obsession are what feed the psychological thriller aspect of the film.

I adored the scenes of Oliver watching Felix and a classmate make love before orchestrating a scenario where he can also make love to that same classmate. Scenes like these make the audience question who Oliver is and why he acts as he does. “Saltburn” does not attempt to steer the audience toward a specific interpretation of the scene. This film is at its best when it is subtle. However, it often fails to rein itself in.

The viral “bathtub scene” is an example of just this. Oliver watches as Felix ejaculates into his bathwater and exits. Then, Oliver kneels in the bathtub and consumes that bathwater. There is not much that this scene conveys that has not already been established. We know that Oliver has an unhealthy obsession with Felix. This scene adds nothing but a sense of “weirdness.”

Fennell cannot help but lose herself in depravity. It is abundantly clear that she wants this film to shock people. This is the film’s biggest folly. In the age of the internet, pure shock is a difficult feeling to evoke. Instead, scenes that attempt to shock come across as simply “weird for the sake of being weird.” The most shocking, most scandalous scenes in “Saltburn” lack substance and add nothing to the film. They are hollow spectacles.

This can be said about the film as a whole. It is undoubtedly visually beautiful;  filled with lush shots of English country and old-money luxury, each shot is a painting. I could print out any still from this film and hang it on my wall. It is a sight to behold. The actors are excellent at chewing up the scenery. Keoghan’s performance is perfectly unsettling, as he switches between mild, meek Oxford Oliver and obsequious, domineering Saltburn Oliver. Elordi was made to play Felix, a Greek god of a man. He is alluring, inviting a sense of awe with each word and movement. Rosamund Pike is especially superb at embodying melodrama and casual cruelty as she plays Felix’s mother. The film has all of the elements for excellence, but it fails to deliver.

The moment the film begins to answer questions, it loses its gravitas. The film’s final twist, and the explanation of that twist, taints both the remainder of the film and everything we had seen until that point. The tension is gone and is replaced by a sense of “Oh, really? That’s it?”

The best thing about this film is its ambiguity. I kept on watching because I wanted to know what was fueling Oliver. Why is this little freak the way he is? However, I did not need the film to answer those questions. I did not need to see a montage of things that were already clearly implied to be the work of Oliver. I wanted to end the film with questions, and it did not let me do that. The film lost any sense of substance by staging Oliver as a comic book villain.

“Saltburn” began as an intriguing exploration of obsession, a slow character study of a strange little man. However, as it continued, it lost its intrigue. It failed to dive deep enough, and it failed to deliver anything thought-provoking. It was simply a visual feast with very little going on underneath — empty calories.

Like its cast of characters, “Saltburn” is gorgeous but entirely shallow.



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