As economic tension between the ultra-rich and the rest of the world continues to grow, it’s a topic that keeps driving dark, memorable movies.
A new film that seems to follow in this path is Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn. This movie follows an Oxford freshman, Oliver, who awkwardly infiltrates the social circle of his ultra-rich classmate Felix Catton. As Oliver hungers to be like Felix, he finds himself caught in a part horror movie, part classic Gothic novel.
Saltburn is an intoxicating experience: a visually rich, caustic crime thriller in the vein of The Talented Mister Ripley.
Oliver is obsessed with the luxury, comforts, and casual arrogance of Felix and his wealthy family. But as they spend more time with Oliver, the family drops hints that he’s probably just the plaything of the season, likely to be discarded out of boredom.
Fennell’s movie isn’t entirely sympathetic toward Oliver, who’s clearly grasping and needy as well as ruthless. At the same time, it isn’t fully on board with Felix and his superficial, selfish family members, either.
“It’s really about having sympathy with everyone, always,” Fennell says. “Certainly for me as a writer and director — and for the actors, too — it always has to be an exercise in empathy. None of these people thinks of themselves as a bad person.”
Saltburn is a movie about fame, fandom, the internet, and parasocial relationships, about the kind of connections people make from a distance and build into elaborate, often unhealthy fantasies. Part of drawing that line was making Felix the kind of superstar who would earn a fandom: He’s handsome, charming, and skilled at everything he tries, but he’s also surprisingly kind.
Both Saltburn and Promising Young Woman are about toxic hunger, about a protagonist so monomaniacal about getting something that they’re willing to cut any moral corners to get there.
As far as other comparisons to her work go, Fennell notes that both Promising Young Woman and Saltburn are thwarted love stories.
It may seem a little counterintuitive to compare internet fame with Gothic novels like Brideshead Revisited, Wuthering Heights, and Northanger Abbey. But Fennell thinks of these books and online obsessions as closely connected.
“Online, fame isn’t just about people anymore. It’s about their wardrobes, the way they organize their wardrobes, the labels they put on their drawers, every detail of people’s lives. It’s their food, their clothes, it’s everything.”
Saltburn is in theaters now.