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Review: Getting lost in Saltburn (2023)

By Elizabeth BJ

Notes by Elizabeth BJ on watching Emerald Fennell's critically acclaimed 2023 film, Saltburn.

*Warning: Spoilers ahead.

The narrative unfolds around Ollie, a college student on scholarship, who observes Felix, a popular heir, from afar. Their paths intertwine when Felix, in a rush, seeks Ollie's assistance, leading to an agreement where Ollie gains entry into the opulent inner circle of Felix's family for the summer break. The film is characterized by impeccable cinematography, as well as beautiful photography and color arrangements.

My mom stopped watching the movie because she thought the karaoke scene was too humiliating, an uncalled-for punishment for someone whose only fault was not being born rich, or, at least accommodated. I had just started the same movie when she told me this but decided to keep on watching nonetheless. I retorted that she quit just before the narrative turned darker, perhaps involving a metaphorical twist of the knife—or razors.

Saltburn initially evoked Gatsby and Nick vibes. As it continued, I became puzzled by Ollie's indifference to his outsider status being highlighted. Rather than grappling with this outsider identity, he fixates on those within the inner circle with an erotic yet cold, detached gaze. He repeatedly seeks to gain power through sexual favors, momentarily gaining control during these brief encounters, only to lose it by morning.

Ollie's role as the boy-toy and charity case remained unquestioned, but beneath the facade lay a desire for power over others. The narrative's unexpected turn lies in its refusal to conform to the conventional summer unrequited crush theme. The film cunningly conceals its intentions, allowing the twist to hit with a fresh perspective. Astute observers could discern hints about Oliver Quick's complex psyche.

Here's the key to this piece, at least to me. You don't expect Saltburn to go beyond a summer unrequited crush. It doesn't reveal its intentions right away and that was crucial to feel the twist as a fresh perspective. Of course, for the good observer, the hints to Oliver Quick’s mind were always around. 

From the onset, a glimpse of Ollie's weathered face tells us that the visit to the old manor, as well as Felix, is but a memory to him. Yet, the revelation that young Ollie aspired to ascend as the ruler of the ancient palace, toppling each previous owner, caught me off guard. Up until the very end, I expected him to be a sort of last pawn standing, but Ollie shatters these expectations.  The story unfolds as a complex game that references animality, monstrosity, and myth: The minotaur, symbolized by Ollie with horns atop his head and positioned beside a statue, wins over Icarus, the young winged Felix, resulting in Pllie escaping the labyrinth as both monster and king of the palace.

Saltburn captivated me for its freshness, unexpected twists, dark undertones, and the infusion of a murder spree into the summer narrative.


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