The Culture-Defining Success of Saltburn

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Words: Sophie Hannam (she/her)

Sexy, sultry and sadistic: ever since its release in November 2023, Saltburn has dominated pop culture, and why would it not? A culmination of 00s club hits, reemerging fashion trends and an eat-the-rich narrative that critiques the hypocrisies of late-stage capitalism, Saltburn entices its audience with a maximalist tale, beckoning viewers to indulge beyond the residences of the titular estate. A forewarning to readers who have yet to watch this iconic masterpiece, there will be MAJOR spoilers ahead. 

Directed by Emerald Fennell – who some may know from her directorial debut Promising Young Woman which remains one of my all-time favourite films – Saltburn focuses on a young Oxford student, played by Barry Keoghan, spending the summer at his aristocratic classmate’s estate. A relatively sweet story of queer love and the complexities of class divide turns utterly sour very quickly, once we leave the grounds of the University of Oxford and head to Saltburn. The audience witnesses the transformation of young Ollie from prey to predator as he seduces and destroys the members of his new-found social circle. And god does he do it with style, adding such intense levels of depravity to his actions that viewers are left speechless and slightly aroused every time the camera pans to Keoghan. I mean, do I even need to address the improvised grave scene?

Throughout the film, Fennell takes care to weave a tapestry of references and inspirations across what seems like every possible component of her film. This attention to detail has – in my personal belief – spread its popularity from blockbuster hit to culture-defining work of art. Much like its bourgeois personas, the film colonises and borrows from an extensive list of famed works. Large levels of inspiration seem to be taken directly from the mind of Kubrick – Fennell’s directorial love – perfectly sliding into this positively filthy narrative. The maze motif that becomes a defining feature of the estate seems to be leeched off the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, and the fucked up character of Oliver serves as a mere imitation of the sadistic Alex from A Clockwork Orange. There appears to be very little original in Fennell’s work, yet the film presents itself as something never seen before. And to me, that is the very essence of what Fennell was attempting to showcase. A plethora of luxurious extravagance, that at its heart is merely a shallow mimicry of its far grander and insightful predecessors. Almost identical to the false mirror of culture and class that the Saltburn dwellers brandish themselves with: in reality, they truly have nothing to warrant such praise. 

Saltburn parties have popped off across the world – take the recent HIVE night for example – in which teens can dress as sluttily as Felix and dance along to classic bangers of the early noughties. I believe this opportunity to indulge in a time period that many partygoers were too young to experience is behind the vast majority of this film’s success. Fennell herself even addresses the film as a period drama;  after all, the 00s is vintage! Travelling back to a time with brick phones, low-rise everything and sexy eyebrow piercings is just as enticing as the life of the ludicrous upper classes. Perhaps the nostalgia that Saltburn creates is the most powerful tool that Oliver has over his viewers, seducing us with faded memories of Girls Aloud and sticky lipgloss, making us also fall victim to his terrifying charms. 

The cast doesn’t hurt the overall popularity of this hit, drenching television screens in raw sex appeal. Jacob Elordi, Barry Keoghan, Alison Oliver, the list goes on. All of these stars drew flocks of crazed viewers into theatres to catch a glimpse of their Hollywood crushes performing acts of depravity; who wouldn’t partake? Alison Oliver, who plays the role of Venitia, Felix’s younger sister, has pushed a re-emergence of the “dirty-girl” aesthetic with her Effy Stonem-esc smokey eye and grown-out bleach job. Sophie Ellis Baxter has grown in immense fame through the use of her song Murder on the Dancefloor in the end scene – a once rarely heard song now an essential tune to any night out. All in all this movie is taking the world by a storm, stringing along today’s impressionable youth who devote their modes of self-expression towards the Saltburn aesthetic. All hail Barry Keoghan’s dancing skills…


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