Tuesday, February 6, 2024


What do you do when you agree with many of the criticisms about something, a book or film, for example, but still enjoy that something? The answer is obvious -- just enjoy the book or film for what it is.  I had that experience watching Saltburn the other day, a film I wound up liking more than I thought I would.

If, broadly speaking, the film is a mix between a country house story like Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, it's the country house part that works well and glides along smoothly and the Ripley part that is somewhat clunky. By the time I saw the film, I was clued in that Oliver, the Barry Keoghan character, is manipulative and somewhat monstrous, but that he isn't who he seems to be is without question, as others have pointed out, not at all hard to predict. You may not predict just how far he'll go in his actions and act out on his sexual frustrations, but I can see why writer and director Emerald Fennell has downplayed the Ripley connections. Saltburn is hardly a thriller. And there are no points weaker in the film than its scenes toward the end sort of laying out the final revelations of the plot. Seeing all the pieces of a puzzle laid out rather clumsily when no laying out of the puzzle is needed makes the final few minutes, till perhaps the final scene, feel perfunctory. Over explaining is never good, and this goes double for over explaining what's easy for the audience to put together. But in Saltburn the fun is had in the getting there. It's the journey that gives pleasure here, not so much the foreordained destination.

I love country house stories and none more than Brideshead Revisted, both the novel and the old British TV miniseries adaptation. Saltburn clearly hearkens back to Waugh's great book in its overall structure. Oliver is invited to the family country estate as Charles Ryder in Brideshead is invited to Brideshead by aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. The object of Oliver's fascination, Felix, has a vulnerable sister, Venetia, just like Sebastian does in Julia. The parents of Felix and his sister figure prominently as Sebastian and Julia's parents do. But is Saltburn a satire of Brideshead and country house stories of its ilk? That's the stange thing. Saltburn isn't incisive enough in any way to work well as true satire. As others have said, it does come across as a hollow film in some ways. It gives you this look at class and desire and frustration and covetousness without really saying much about them all that interesting. People can be rich and idle and interesting, and have depth, as, say, in Brideshead, but in Saltburn, they are purposely made flat, one-dimensional. But as performed by everyone, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant and Carey Mulligan in particular, they are very amusing. This is indeed a sort of pulp fantasy version of a country house story, with some Gothic touches. The movie, up until all the clumsy exposition, is a lark. 

Would the movie have benefited if it had gone into Oliver's head more and given us more insight into what drives him and what has given rise to his psychological makeup? I don't know if it would benefit from that, but it would change the nature of the movie. I read a piece somewhere describing Saltburn as "postmodern", a term that gets thrown around a lot but one which I don't think is off here. Emerald Fennell clearly knows that the audience will be familiar with this type of story from the start and populates the story with character types more than actual characters. Flatness (delivered with humor and wit) is part of the point. And the ending: did Oliver really do everything he did and go through everything he did just to be able to exult in the specific way he does in the final scene? He basically has a lewd NFL football style end zone celebration. That's it? That is what he takes from his victory? Compare that with Brideshead where Charles Ryder's entire experience leaves him changed in a major way, apparently even converted to Catholicism after starting the novel an agnostic. There is no theological aspect to Saltburn, needless to say, and no nostalgia for an earlier time or a hearkening back to a however mythological better age for the British nobility. Saltburn is resolutely of this age (though set mainly in 2006-2007), with nobody having what you might call heightened thoughts of any kind and everyone showing some combination of boredom, shallowness, acquisitiveness, and selfishness. You could say it's an empty film about empty people that says nothing startling or especially interesting about its milieu or the people in it, but despite that, I get the sense that Emerald Fennell made exactly the film she intended to make. She isn't trying to reach "deep". Her film isn't quite satire and definitely isn't a Highsmith-style psychological thriller, but as a black comedy of sorts, kind of ridiculous, very British in its sensibility, it works. At least it did for me.

No comments: