Sick, Twisted and Silly: Emerald Fennell on her obsessive sophomore feature Saltburn

Call me by your title: Emerald Fennell directing her beautiful boys at Saltburn. — Photographer… Chiabella James
Call me by your title: Emerald Fennell directing her beautiful boys at Saltburn. Photographer… Chiabella James

With her latest provocative pleasure Saltburn, Emerald Fennell goes more personal and more sicko in a tale of privilege, desire and dark obsession. From one silly Brit to another, Ella Kemp takes a figurative trip to the estate.

Maybe I’m being facetious, but I don't think there’s anything in this film that’s that sick, especially when I've been used to seeing women’s bodies treated abominably in film and television.

—⁠Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell knew exactly how the vomit in the sink was supposed to look. The year is 2007 and the place is Oxford University—Fennell is graduating in one world, but her lead character Oliver Quick is just beginning in another. After her incendiary revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, the Oscar-winning writer and Oscar-nominated director flips the script towards something different and daring for her follow-up, Saltburn. It’s a story about boys and their toys, but arguably something just as personal and raw for Fennell (if only a little heightened).

“It’s all personal, isn’t it? No matter how much you want to get away from yourself, you never really can,” the filmmaker tells me of her trip down college-era memory lane (the best of Girls Aloud, The Cheeky Girls, MGMT and Bloc Party are all invited to the party) and deep into the psyche of anyone who has ever felt life-threatening yearning and obsession. (Basically, everyone.) “Whether or not [Saltburn is] about my time at Oxford, it’s more about my obsession and all of our obsessions with looking at things we want. The constant watching and endless voyeurism, the bottomless pit of voracious need and desire for people and their houses and their families.”

That bottomless pit is brought to life by Barry Keoghan as Oliver, an impossibly clever Northerner who longs for the life, magnetism and luxurious airs of his classmate Felix Catton (Priscilla co-star Jacob Elordi, in a movie year seemingly made just for him). Oliver wrangles an invitation to spend the summer at Catton’s eponymous estate, the swanky, maze-riddled Saltburn, where everything unravels.

Oliver Quick and his wheelie suitcase, ready for a summer he’ll never forget.
Oliver Quick and his wheelie suitcase, ready for a summer he’ll never forget.

Saltburn begins with Oliver trying to explain to the audience all the ways exactly he loved Felix. Love begets desire begets obsession begets danger—as it does, in moments of genuine, all-consuming attraction. “When you’re talking about desire, when you’re talking about real obsession, it is dark,” Fennell says. “That’s why this film is a Gothic romance. It’s a horror, where those two things are rubbing up against each other, the thing that makes you feel good and the thing that makes you feel bad.” Along with Merchant-Ivory gems and the films of Joseph Losey, Peter Greenaway and Bernardo Bertolucci, there are more than a few shades of Call Me by Your Name. We see them in the sun-kissed frames that juxtapose angular jawlines and ice-cold sweet lollies on a wide-open afternoon, and in the more peculiar things we do when nobody’s looking. Suffice to say, Abbie knows: “Peach scene in Call Me by Your Name, you are done for, count ur days!!!”

Fennell nods to Kaitlyn Tiffany’s 2014 book Everything I Need I Get from You as a guide on female desire and fandom, specifically how “powerful and potent” those communities can be. Saltburn has plenty of male-centric energy, alongside which there are casting choices like House of the Dragon’s wickedly good Ewan Mitchell as Oliver’s first uni friend, the needy and whiny Michael Gavey. It’s a nod to the desires and obsessions of girls around the world and online today—and always.

The filmmaker also acknowledges Catherine Breillat as something of an emotional compass, specifically one mantra from 1999’s Romance: “She says that sex isn’t between people, it’s actually between beauty and disgust. There has to be some element that is transgressive, slightly frightening.” In Saltburn, it’s impossible to not feel a little bit of that fear when stepping through the doors (gates? towers?) of the Cattons’ country home. Or when seeing the way Felix’s cousin Farleigh (a brilliantly intimidating Archie Madekwe) stares down Oliver like a lamb for the slaughter.

To the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Rent’: “I love you, you rent my tux.”
To the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Rent’: “I love you, you rent my tux.”

“Some of the characters in this film have a scary command over other people,” Fennell agrees, while acknowledging that the most beguiling such moments are stealthier. “There’s a huge, beautiful, warm charisma that somebody like Felix has, that you can see coming a mile off. And then there’s this other kind of nighttime thing. That is very different.” There’s more than just Felix for Oliver; Saltburn contains far more than the carnal attraction and sweet schoolboy romance that buoyed Elio (Timothée Chalamet’s breakout role) in Luca Guadagnino’s film.

Keoghan is mercurial and holds great menace in his stare. “I think of him almost like a silent actor or a Pinter actor, in that where he excels is in the moments of stillness and quiet,” says Fennell of Keoghan. “That’s where he has so much power over other characters and over us as the audience. And, crucially, he is absolutely gorgeous. Lighting him was a pleasure.”

Keoghan’s beauty, however, is really nothing next to the mansion in the country that is Saltburn itself. Felix’s family home for the summer is a sprawling estate that makes Wonderland look like a Wilko (Brits know) and promises to swallow you whole. Nobody speaks of the secrets in the walls. The place becomes more than a character, something spiritual that promises a threat only those who go there can really understand.

It’s here that the fun and the tragedy really begin—Fennell, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for her first film, writes jokes you feel somewhat cursed for laughing at (“I know it’s going well when the more dreadful it becomes the more people laugh,” she says). Her characters are drawn so vividly, you feel they just must be real—except it’s staggering to imagine any living, breathing person daring to say such things. When Felix lets slip about Oliver’s mother’s struggle with substance abuse, his own mother, Lady Elspeth Catton (a scene-stealing Rosamund Pike), tells her friend and longtime guest Pamela (Carey Mulligan) she had heard the dreadful news of these babies, like Oliver, being born drunk.

Alison Oliver as poor dear Venetia with her liquid diet.
Alison Oliver as poor dear Venetia with her liquid diet.

It is a world of excess and elegance until it’s not: Felix’s sister Venetia (Conversations with Friends rising star Alison Oliver) has an eating disorder (or “fingers for pudding” as her mother calls it); Farleigh uses corrosive emotional abuse to hide his insecurity and pain at the barely veiled racism and disdain of his adopted family; and Pamela, poor dear Pamela—the thrill of seeing Carey Mulligan so damn pathetic and funny is snuffed as soon as you realize the cost. Meanwhile, Patriarch Richard E. Grant (who’s known Fennell since the age of twelve) isn’t ruffled by too much as Sir James Catton, as long as he can wear his suit of armor.

In lesser hands, the whole thing would be a farce. But Keoghan, as he did in films such as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, holds you by the throat in this world unknown and unbelievable. Fennell—who, yes, is Midge in Barbie, but also played Camilla Parker-Bowles in the third and fourth seasons of The Crown—strikes additional gold by leaning into audiences’ unconscious familiarity with such delicious exuberance. “We have so effectively exported the British country house and the aristocracy elsewhere,” Fennell says. “Because of Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited, everyone has a familiarity with this world. They know the rules and tricks, they can sense that when Duncan the butler cocks an eyebrow that it’s fucking over.”

We Brits have indeed twisted our legitimate homegrown elegance into a cultural product of high-stakes manners, but that’s where viewers need to pay attention to Saltburn. “Watching it in England, people know it’s a comedy,” Fennell explains. “They immediately understand that it’s a satire, bombastic and over-the-top. It takes a little bit longer elsewhere… Because of the elegance, people assume it’s a serious thing.”

Saltburn opened this year’s BFI London Film Festival after receiving its world premiere at Telluride, and in London the laughs really landed. The film is plainly funny, until it’s plainly something else. Beautiful, no doubt, but also twisted and desperate: an offhand remark, an ill-fitting tuxedo, a stolen kiss, a life-altering lie.

Felix? Romeo? Elio? Oliver? Is any of this real?
Felix? Romeo? Elio? Oliver? Is any of this real?

Fennel might think of herself as a “silly billy”, but “sicko” is the label that’s sticking fast in Letterboxd reviews. She laughs her booming, room-filling and nerve-shattering laugh, before regaining composure, when she hears Hunter’s Letterboxd review: “This one is truly for the sickos. A bit too sick for my taste at times, but you sickos will love it.” The filmmaker says, “For me, the sicker it gets, the funnier it is.” (I agree, and so does Jenni Kaye in her perfect, spoiler-heavy review.) “I always feel like, aren’t we all sick? Is any of this really that bad? Is any of this worse than the sort of things people are typing in at three in the morning? Maybe I’m being facetious, but I don’t think there’s anything in this film that’s that sick, especially when I’ve been used to seeing women’s bodies treated abominably in film and television.”

On the heels of Promising Young Woman, but also the piercing Killing Eve, for which she was a showrunner and executive producer, Fennell knows. The fun is earned, and the sickness of it all really comes down to taste—and guts. Fennell has them. “We’re talking about a few little close-ups, you know? There are a couple of moments that are extra-Gothic, but there’s nothing in this film that isn’t honest about how we feel about people. There are so many people that we would eat alive, given half the chance.”

Saltburn’ is now in cinemas in multiple regions including the US and the UK via Amazon MGM Studios and Warner Bros.

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