‘Saltburn’ Is The New Modern Gothic Tale

*Warning: This is a review for the new film Saltburn by Emerald Fennel & contains some spoilers* 

Image: Saltburn still – Prime – © Amazon Content Services LLC access from IMDB

‘The bathtub scene’, ‘the grave scene’, ‘the vampire scene’. If you have seen any of these words trending on X recently and felt confused, it must mean you haven’t yet seen the aesthetic atrocity — and I mean that in the best way possible — that is Saltburn, the new film that is as intriguing as it is disturbing. From the trailer, the sophomore film from director Emerald Fennel (what a fantastic name) appears to be a story about a close, possibly homoerotic, friendship between Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) and Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), set in 2007. But in reality, the story of Saltburn is a hell of a lot more complex, depraved, and unhinged than the trailer lets on.  

Fennel found a lot of inspiration for the film in classic literature, from novels such as Brideshead Revisited, The Go-Between, Atonement, among others. Personally, I found Saltburn bore a lot of similarities to Rebecca, the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, in which a woman feels haunted by Rebecca, the dead ex-wife of her new husband, who you find out later in the story was the one who killed Rebecca. In Saltburn, Oliver, a lower-class Oxford student, becomes infatuated with and befriends one of his handsome upper-class peers, Felix, who invites Oliver to his family’s estate, Saltburn. Much like when the nameless protagonist of Rebecca, a young middle-class woman, is taken to her new husband’s home, an imposing and dark mansion called Manderley. In both stories, and in a lot of gothic literature, the act of giving the house a name, makes the house become a character in the story. Similar to the way that Manderley is haunted by dead ex-wives, overbearing housekeepers, and rooms that are off limits, Saltburn symbolises everything that Oliver wants in life; extravagance, beauty, luxury, and a home. This film details everything that Oliver is willing to do in order to get what he wants.  

So, does Oliver want to be with Felix or does he want to be Felix? In order to feel more noble about his pursuit of getting closer to him, Oliver has convinced himself that he is in love with Felix, who is the embodiment of everything Oliver wants in life. Felix is the physical embodiment of Saltburn itself. He is excessively charming and kind to everyone he meets, despite his wealth. He is almost godlike in his attractiveness: six foot five, soft brown hair and an expertly placed eyebrow piercing. He’s a lot more laidback and approachable than the rest of his standoffish family, which is why Oliver finds it so easy to become infatuated with him. He obviously doesn’t care about status and wealth as much as his family does, because he invites Oliver, the son of addicts and alcoholics, to his brawling estate at the drop of a hat. And he doesn’t care what people think about him either. “I accidentally fingered my cousin here,” Felix says nonchalantly to Oliver, as he gives him a tour of his home. This is an ease that Oliver has never felt in his own life, and he wants to possess it more than anything.  

The trailer makes a lot of hints to how sexually charged this film is, but it isn’t until you watch it for yourself that you realise just how depraved it really is. Not a single healthy or normal sex scene occurs in this whole movie, unless you count Jacob Elordi masturbating in a bathtub. However, it’s what Oliver does to the bathtub after Felix leaves the room which a lot of viewers found hard to watch. People with queasy stomachs should stop reading now; THE bathtub scene that everyone keeps talking about is referring to Oliver slurping up Felix’s murky bath water from the bottom of the tub and tonguing the drain. I’ve never quite experienced an audience reaction as strong as the one this scene caused; the entire theatre became filled with gasps, giggles and gags.  

Another major influence on the film is the novel Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë. Again, this is a story that details a relationship between people from two different social classes, and ends in betrayal, death and debauchery. The ‘grave scene’ I mentioned earlier is a clear example of this inspiration. After Oliver (spoiler!) kills Felix, he waits for everyone to leave the cemetery after his funeral. Once alone, he falls to the ground and sobs, then proceeds to take off all his clothes and repeatedly penetrate the soft dirt of Felix’s grave. This is reminiscent of when Heathcliff, in his frenzied heartbroken state, digs up Catherine’s body so he can embrace her one last time. Neither of these couples ever actually had the chance to consummate their relationship, in Heathcliff’s case because of a difference in social standing and in Oliver’s case because Felix found out everything Oliver had ever told him was a total lie. 

The ending of Saltburn does deviate from the norm of other gothic stories, where generally the protagonist cannot win against the house, as in Rebecca, where the protagonist flees a burning Manderley. Rebecca, the dead ex-wife, and Manderley have ‘won’ and expelled the newcomer. In Saltburn though, Oliver is able to ‘defeat’ the house and those in it, making it his own. A common theme in gothic literature is for the protagonist to leave the house a changed person, with their innocence no longer intact. This film subverts this trope by introducing a character who had no innocence to begin with. Instead, it is the house itself and the people who lived within it, that are changed by the newcomer. The genre of gothic fiction is one that is closely associated with the 1800’s but is being revived by modern film makers and writers with works like The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992), and Crimson Peak directed by Guillermo del Toro (2015). Emerald Fennel carries on this contemporary resurrection with Saltburn, only with guts to include more lurid scenes like Oliver going down on Felix’s sister Venetia while she is on her period – ‘the vampire scene’ – something that the likes of Daphne du Maurier and Emily Brontë would never have gotten away with.  

For a movie that leans hard on shock factor, the ending really packs a punch; Oliver dancing stark naked through the enormous and empty mansion that he earned through deception and murder to the tune of Murder on the Dance Floor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor. The very last scene of the film is of Oliver admiring a small puppet theatre which belonged to Felix’s family, an object Oliver had observed while he was still just a guest at Saltburn. Oliver defeated the Cattons and won Saltburn through his trickery and manipulation of the family, much like a puppeteer can move his puppets any way he wants. 

Jacinta Rossetto
Jacinta Rossetto

Jacinta Rossetto is a writer, artist and editor studying Creative Writing at QUT. Her passion project is a little something called Dawn Street Zine, a zine that she writes, designs, produces and scouts content for. Her favourite genres to write in are gothic fiction, literary fiction and romance fiction.

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