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Even though this film fizzled on contact with my eyeballs, the heat and mess disappeared after a couple of days. This just adds to the mystery for me. The discourse around this film is so loud. Someone somewhere must genuinely find this film personally professionally or politically horrifying. Someone must! Because the horror and disgust is palpable in The Culture and it was the entirety of my first impression. Everyone has a hot take, they’re everywhere, just littering every single timeline I algorithmically participate in. I had to backtrack after watching to figure out which bit people were horrified by exactly. Was it the bit where Oliver gulps up Felix’s cummy bathwater? Was it the bit where Oliver strips naked and fucks a hole into Felix’s freshly dug grave? Was it the class dynamic? The class fraud? The twist at the end where Oliver was the criminal mastermind who had planned this all along? The allegory of it all? The cringe, the palpable horror, the shame and outrage-bait that just permeates every scene? Can’t tell. Still, even as I type. I don’t think there’s one single location for it. It’s just a painful blush seeping out across the entire film — blood under the skin, widening capillaries, red rising up to the surface — ah!

That’s why I got a kick out of it all. Embarassment is hot. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Or, I do and I have decided that there’s nothing sexier than embarassment. And Saltburn kind of flies right past common garden variety embarassment. Parts of it are legitimately kink-coded, genuine authentic sexual degradation. Some people are into drinking cummy bathwater (and good for them). Other parts have a side-on approach to a more abstract kind of degradation. In Oliver being so desperately keen, he basically begs Felix for friendship. In Venetia’s masochism. In Farleigh’s sneering disdain. In the way literally everyone in this film Wants or Needs so openly, with no attempt at tidy discretion. Eroticism and depravity, disgust, degradation, embarassment — these things all know each other, they are probably friends, they probably spit in each others’ mouths (in a fun way). Maybe it’s because I’m writing this review slap bang in the middle of ovulation week, but Saltburn handles sex like this inescapable invisible thing. It is explicit, unspoken, under the table in every room, an overcurrent in every scene. In the dialogue, the delivery, the way the characters position themselves in relation to each other. It’s outrageous in the way it just shamelessly simmers away in the filth of its own embarassment, it’s all so palpable and pleading. Because sex is a kind of tool, a proxy for power or violence or something less abstract (the grounded corporeal reality of wanting to have or be had).

Then the film gets highbrow. Literary and referential. A minefield or a goldmine, depending on how you feel about all those citations. It is Brideshead Revisited (undergraduate aristocrat invites his friend from Oxford back to his family’s insane castle for the summer, homoerotic undertones). It is the Talented Mr Ripley (hustler infiltrates the inner circle of charismatic playboy, becomes obsessed with him and then MURDERS him. ILLEGITIMATELY SCAMS his way into playboy’s inheritance by becoming him). It is Rebecca (potentially haunted country estate, mystery murder jealousy and menacing servants). It is VERY MUCH Wuthering Heights (obsessive toxic relationship, Heathcliff begs Cathy to haunt him forever, digs her body up for a secret weird purpose). It’s Pasolini’s Teorema (mysterious stranger/visitor fucks his way through a wealthy family, changing them/their lives/their trajectories forever). Horror, the Gothic tradition, Romanticism in a way too. In the macabre Gothic bodliness, it is also Revivalist? Like the Medieval wounds of christ, animal body, closer to nature. Medieval in a feudal sense too — benevolent lord takes pity on his subject, the lowly serf (hot). I say highbrow and what I mean is Knowing. It’s a film that’s contextually aware that the categories it sits in are expansive and rich, and is willing to use that richness for FUN. It mixes and matches. Churns out a third, worse, weirder thing.

Back to embarrassment. I guess the horrifying thing about Satburn is that it indulges something ugly for the sake of a sick, secret satisfaction. That sick secret satisfaction isn’t really or properly horrifying, it’s just… Niche. No shaming etc. But it does make me think about what specific itch that satisfaction is scratching. I’ve been very coy about class, don’t you think? I’ve barely mentioned it up until now. If you ask literally anyone else, they’ll tell you that this film is mainly about class, that class is the entire container around this film.

Saltburn definitely contains an itchy kind of class anxiety, the embarassment of talking about class (from any position). If I was a scholar, I’d look at it through a Marxist lens and say: hmmmm, fuck anxiety — this film is all about FEAR. That’s the source of the Horror, disgust and embarassment. Perhaps Saltburn dares to speak aloud The Great Aristocratic Fear? That the wealth, resources and power that the upper classes have stolen and hoarded away will one day be snatched back from them by a pitchfork-wielding crowd of the lumpen proletarian masses. Or, WORSE! By the sneaky snakey upwardly aspirational middle classes, the bourgeois climbers who always grasp for more and refuse to know their place. I (scholarly-self) would think long and hard about how that Artistocratic Fear is similar to the fear of White Replacement — how those fears are founded in the belief that after transgression, reprisal is inevitable. I’d say something astute about how theft is a kind of fundamental and basic principle underlining both feudalism and its successor, Capitalism — from enclosure of the commons to the exploitation inherent in wage labour — so it makes sense to fear theft in whatever system succeeds capitalism. I’d say that it’s interesting this film came from a director like Emerald Fennell, who is so posh, her 18th birthday was covered in Tatler. But also, of course it did? Gabrielle’s scholarly self would probably reply that it’s analytically interesting that she chose to make Olly from Merseyside — a place where all the LIARS supposedly live, according to Thatcherian logic.

My actual hot take, if you absolutely demand one from me, is: I think class was weirdly circumstantial, kinda peripheral. I mean — I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m middle class, the most embarassing and embarassed position on the great social pyramid. The middle classes are too embarassed to talk about class in any interesting insightful or meaningful way. Even talking about that embarrassment gets sticky. But embarassment aside, class itself was not what I found myself interested in. Like, not on its own. In Saltburn, I think class was a setting, mood music or rolling backdrop. It was almost the least interesting bit. I was mostly excited by where it all went from there; to this quite sexually weird space, of violence and impulse and cruelty and pleasure. The exhibitionism and voyeurism of it all. Where Felix wants Oliver’s adoration and Oliver wants Felix’s… anything and everything. I was excited by the sick pleasure I took in the story’s trajectory, the happy ending, excited by my own perverse excitement.

Back when I was very anorexic, I wrote a short story about a girl who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where she’s the only person left alive. In her perfect solitude, she hallucinates the ghost of Timothee Chalamet and together they ransack a patisserie on the top floor of Selfridges. Again, a minefield or a goldmine, depending on how you feel about psychoanalysing short story authors. What stories do we tell ourselves? When we stumble upon a story that we find a sick little pleasure in, what does that pleasure say about the culture and the world we live in? Because it says something.

If you ask me, Saltburn is a kind of fantasy. A daydream of a film. It’s set in a world where the rich, the posh, the aristocratic and generationally powerful are a class of people who are actually quite weak and gullible. They’re silly. Easily fucked over if you’re willing to get down and dirty for it. Saltburn says: if the rich want you to be their poor little pet, then you can be sooooo good. You can turn over and show them your very soft belly and you like them sooo much so maybe you’ll let them rub it. Would they like to see a trick? And another trick? And another! That’s when you can attack. When their defences are down. It’s a fantasy of the tables turning, of power shifting from one end of the great social pyramid to the other, of role’s reversing. That’s why it’s hot. Because that’s fucking universally hot. It’s very sexy and normal and not at all disturbing or horrifying. It’s not even remarkable. Saltburn is just erotic fiction.