It’s ironic that Emerald Fennell’s sophomore slump (not that her freshman feature Promising Young Woman was any better…) should start with a criticism of style over substance. After all, Saltburn is all style and no substance. To use Fennell’s own words against her, “That’s kind of… lazy.” There are writers who direct, and directors who write. Emerald Fennell is, without a doubt, a director who should not write.
Stylistically, Saltburn is gorgeous. I would never dare to disagree. With its nostalgic 1.33 aspect ratio, moody montages, Renaissance-inspired tableaux shot compositions, and chiaroscuro lighting, Saltburn is overwhelmingly seductive in its visuals. However, it’s devoid of substance. It’s literally just vibes. Don’t get me wrong, I love vibes! Cinema is full of abstract, ineffable emotions that can best be described as “vibes”. The candy-coloured filmography of Sophia Coppola for example, has a distinctive vibe. But style always needs to be in service of narrative. Story first, style second. For Coppola, it’s giving girlhood; identity and isolation; fame, fashion and femininity. For Saltburn, it’s giving… nothing? The vibes are incoherent and empty.
However, it’s exactly those vibes that currently have TikTok in a chokehold, with rich people running around their obnoxiously huge houses to ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ by Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Most popular discourse surrounding Saltburn falls into two categories. Firstly, there are the Saltburn-core girlies who romanticise generational wealth and infantilise Jacob Elordi (“he’s so babygirl”). Then, there are the squeamish straight audiences who gleefully recoil away from the film’s more provocative scenes. Saltburn is clearly many people’s first weird movie. Hey, I’m not judging! Every cinephile has to start somewhere, after all. However, I have a long list of f***ed up films that would send those people into a coma.
I don’t have a problem with provocative cinema. What I do have a problem with, however, is being provocative for the sake of being provocative. Emerald Fennell is so desperate to be crowned a sick, twisted genius but can’t even reach the kids table. Saltburn has many moments which attempt to elicit discomfort or disgust, but few are grounded in narrative or character. Oliver’s (Barry Keoghan) bathwater scene comes (pun not intended) close. However, his murder of Felix (Jacob Elordi) destroys the potential for emotional impact. The grave scene and infamous nude dancing hold little meaning in the narrative. As The Guardian writes, “it plays as an opportunity for a film-maker to have a hot actor writhe in the wet dirt and prance with no clothes.” It’s lazy writing – all shock, no substance.
Speaking of Fennell’s lazy writing, the true downfall of Saltburn can be found in its incoherent class politics. If the film is supposed to be a satirical indictment of the upper classes then it fails spectacularly. The wealthy Catton family – made up of son Felix, mother Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and daughter Venetia (Alison Oliver) – are the supposed subjects of satire. However, they are easily the nicest aristocrats in the ‘eat the rich’ genre. The Cattons are occasionally cruel, but only out of carelessness. They are largely apolitical; insensitive comments are played for laughs as opposed to indicative of evil. The Catton family are not villains. In fact, they are far more sympathetic than the film’s poorest character Oliver – who is not even poor but revealed to be comfortably middle-class in the film’s ‘shocking twist.’ Who, then, is Saltburn supposed to be an indictment of?
In an interview for AnOther Magazine, Fennell claims that her film is about the “absurdity of class.” However, class is only “absurd” to those who don’t suffer as a result. To trivialise an unjust, hierarchical social structure as simply an “absurd” aesthetic is incredibly ignorant. For most, class is a tangible reality that shapes our daily lives. Of course, Emerald Fennell is not most people. How could you be, with a name like that? Oxford-educated and raised by ‘King of Bling’ celebrity jeweller Theo Fennell, it’s no wonder that she lacks self-awareness. Her 18th birthday party was photographed by Tatler and attended by nobility, for goodness sake. In his Dazed review, Patrick Sproull asks if “posh people [can] write good class satire” and, after seeing Saltburn, I would have to go with a resounding no.