Brace yourself for the year’s most provocative movie.
Since premiering at Telluride Film Festival in August, “Saltburn” has sparked strong reactions from critics and audiences for its jaw-dropping scenes involving gravesite sex, menstrual blood, full-frontal dancing, and bodily fluids being guzzled from a bathtub.
“A woman came up to me after a screening a couple of weeks ago and said she felt like I’d reached my hand into her body and rummaged around her organs,” says writer/director Emerald Fennell, seated with actors Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi. “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
“Oh, goodness. No one’s said that to me,” Elordi says. “The main thing I hear is, ‘Would you drink the bathwater?’ ” His response: “Absolutely, yeah. Of course.”
What is ‘Saltburn’ about? The ‘strange puzzle box’ of class and privilege
“Saltburn” (in select theaters now, nationwide Wednesday) is Fennell’s incendiary follow-up to 2020’s Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman.” That film was a pastel-colored rape revenge thriller, but this new movie takes a darkly satirical look at class warfare.
The story follows Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a working-class student at Oxford University who struggles to befriend his snooty, affluent classmates. But he is soon taken in by Felix Catton (Elordi), an affable Adonis who invites Oliver to his family’s lavish English estate for the summer. To say much more would spoil the movie’s many twists as tensions simmer over money and privilege and Oliver’s obsession with Felix grows.
Fennell, 38, has long been intrigued by social climbers and the uber-elite. She was born in London to author Louise Fennell and famed jewelry designer Theo Fennell, whose clientele includes Elton John and Lady Gaga. She has also found success in Hollywood as an actress, playing Midge in last summer’s “Barbie” and Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s “The Crown.”
“For me, it’s been a lifelong observational process of how minute the (class) categories in England are,” Fennell says. “It’s so stratified and complicated ‒ it’s like a strange puzzle box. So it’s always been interesting to me to look at that stuff.”
“I grew up pretty blue-collar and I went to an all-boys Catholic school,” Elordi says. “That was the first time I really noticed there was a difference between families, but not to the extent that is in this film.”
Because of its setting and themes, “Saltburn” has frequently been compared to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Brideshead Revisited.” But Fennell was more so inspired by the hypnotic and polarizing work of filmmakers Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer“) and Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”).
“I like things that are cold and hot at the same time,” Fennell says. “Anyone who makes something destabilizing and beautiful is always going to be really interesting to me.”
“You want people to have an experience,” adds Keoghan, 31, an Oscar nominee for last year’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.” “You don’t want to leave the cinema with your finger on the button, knowing what it was about. You want to be moved by it.”
‘Saltburn’ cast members Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi didn’t aim to ‘shock’ with that bathtub scene
“Saltburn” has won praise on social media for its attention to period detail. Fennell set the film in 2006 to show how even the wealthiest folks can’t escape the tackiest trends. Characters have lava lamps, iPod Shuffles and BlackBerry phones. Boys double up their polo shirts, and girls wear Ugg boots and Juicy tracksuits. The film, too, is set to early-aughts indie-rock staples by MGMT, Cold War Kids and The Killers.
“I wore a Livestrong bracelet every day,” Elordi says. “That was a brilliant touch there.”
People also can’t stop talking about the movie’s infamous bathroom scene, in which Oliver spies on Felix as he soaks and masturbates in a tub. After he leaves, Oliver laps up the remaining bathwater and licks inside the drain.
“I just wanted to reach that next level of obsessiveness, and (Felix) being part of me or in me,” Keoghan says. “It made me understand obsession more, just the places he’d go to.”
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“It just feels so true,” Fennell adds. “You can’t pussyfoot around tonguing a drain. You can’t go in there coy. It has to be the absolute filthiest, sexiest, most horrifically intimate thing you’ve ever seen. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
For squirmy scenes like the bathtub, it was important to Fennell that they were approached completely seriously.
“There was no world in which it was funny or we were joking about it,” Elordi says. “It wasn’t a shock meant to make people’s skin crawl. It was all about devotion and love.”