Can Saltburn be considered the most polarizing film of the year?


Currently, there is much talk about Saltburn, the second film from director Emerald Fennell, which follows a middle-class outsider who infiltrates a superficially wealthy family. The reception of the film can be split into two groups: on one side, viewers and a majority of critics who deem it flashy and smug, full of shallow attempts to provoke. On the other side, there are those who view Fennell’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley, with a hint of Abercrombie & Fitch from the mid-2000s, as a captivating erotic thriller with tantalizing twists. To sum up the popular sentiment on TikTok, the film is depraved but enjoyable. Even Vulture, known for its commentary on society, has acknowledged the divide within its own staff.

All are in agreement that Saltburn is visually appealing – luxurious, charming, and costly. (The fact that it features the popular Euphoria actor and rising heartthrob, Jacob Elordi, certainly helps.) However, are its uncomfortable scenes – a character drinking another’s bathwater filled with semen, and a bold ending – a sign of twisted brilliance or simply low-quality tactics pretending to be edgy?

In my opinion, the Saltburn divide is not solely a result of the film’s attempt at satire, but also its calculated elements – its provocative visuals, extravagant depictions of wealth and debauchery, and its blatant emphasis on desire. It ultimately comes down to the overall atmosphere and how one approaches consuming entertainment that heavily relies on it.

I am not intending this to be offensive – despite its negative connotations as a term often used to promote consumerism (such as on Spotify playlists), “vibes” are a powerful element in cinema. It is a broad term that encapsulates the abstract and indescribable emotions that can be evoked by art. Vibes have the ability to transport viewers to intangible aspects of a different time, place, or era. In Sofia Coppola’s dreamy Priscilla, for example, the light and airy atmosphere of the early 60s reflects the isolation and innocence of Priscilla Presley’s relationship with Elvis. Many films on the festival circuit this year – including Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest, Annie Baker’s Janet Planet, and Steve McQueen’s Occupied City – utilize emotions, atmosphere, visual language, and sensory experiences to convey unspoken aspects of the human experience. As Beatrice Loayza of the New York Times put it, these films challenge the notion that a strong narrative is the only measure of quality in screen-based media.

The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka describes “vibes,” also known as “moments of audiovisual eloquence,” as having a specific purpose and appeal. On TikTok, there is a growing trend of users being captivated by Saltburn’s clever marketing as a steamy film, the surprise of the bathtub scene, and the seemingly close bond between Elordi and his co-star Barry Keoghan.

Saltburn is a consciously trendy production, and Fennell excels at creating this atmosphere. She heavily relies on visually stunning sequences, nostalgic songs (especially MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”), and scenes of both beauty and strength. The film begins with adult Oliver Quick (played by Keoghan) declaring that he was never truly in love with the stunningly aloof Felix Catton (played by Elordi). The camera then zooms in on Felix’s sweat, the back of his neck, his abs, and his body being caressed through a window. This sets the tone for the film as a story of intoxication and fixation. It prioritizes visuals and emotions over rational thought. (However, if one were to think more deeply, the entire plot would unravel.)

This type of atmosphere can be both captivating and distracting, causing one to overcompensate and be misled. Despite its attempts at satirizing the wealthy, Saltburn is ultimately portrayed as a lavish setting. It embraces its extravagant manor house, outlandish plot twists, and aristocratic eccentricities, thanks to the talented performances of Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant as the Catton parents. The underlying theme of shallow characters and a weak plot carried by an alluring aura resembles that of HBO’s Euphoria, a show known for its strong vibes. Like Saltburn, the show has received a mixed response from its audience, with some considering it brilliant and others finding it lacking substance. Is it truly stimulating or just provocative? Edgy or simply foolish?

In both instances, I would choose the latter because they both overvalue their influence, mistaking vibes for depth. This is especially evident in Saltburn’s situation, where they both overestimate and undermine their own power. The film has a flawed sense of nostalgia, starting with a loud declaration that it is the class of 2006 at Oxford – perfect for the prevalent mid-2000s nostalgia for millennials. However, it then plays loosely with the time period, lacking specific details. While there are no smartphones, there is also a lack of any distinctive features. For example, the characters watch a movie released in 2007 (Superbad) and sing karaoke to songs popular in 2008 (Flo Rida’s Low). Many have discussed how the film fails to address class or the corruption of wealth, but it also lacks any elements that truly embody the year 2006. It simply takes place around the time when Fennell herself was attending Oxford.

The intended purpose for this era is random and unreliable; the atmosphere is laid-back. Similarly, Fennell’s attempts to shock through nudity, sex, and violence may make viewers uncomfortable, but they lack a sense of genuine human characterization that is necessary for creating desire. Some scenes come close (spoilers ahead) – such as Oliver’s bathwater moment or his sexual encounter with Venetia during her period – but they ultimately feel self-indulgent and aimed at a movie-going audience that is becoming increasingly puritanical. These scenes attempt to symbolize Oliver’s greed and lust for the Catton family’s wealth, but they ultimately fall short in their execution. On the other hand, scenes like Oliver having sex on Felix’s grave or dancing naked in the mansion he has won with no logical explanation, seem to serve as opportunities for the filmmaker to showcase a attractive actor engaging in provocative behavior. However, these scenes lack genuine shock value and are driven solely by superficial vibes, with no underlying narrative purpose to ground them.

The film’s intention as a provocative satire and depiction of desire leaves a bitter taste for me. Vibes can have a wide range of effects; some, like the vibrant buzzsaws in Saltburn or Fennell’s first film Promising Young Woman, resonate more with certain people than others. However, they cannot conceal a lack of intention or a clear sense of character, setting, or concept.