“Saltburn”, on Prime Video: class struggle and unconscious impulses in an English manor

“Saltburn”, on Prime Video: class struggle and unconscious impulses in an English manor

Movies

His name is Oliver Quick. At the start of the 2006 school year, he arrived in Oxford wearing a sweater, his neck girded with a tie. His classmates who dress like 1960s rockstars or NBA players mercilessly mock his outfit and his posture.

In the quaint intimacy of the room where his tutor introduces him to the mysteries of English literature, Oliver (Barry Keoghan) meets Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), poor relation of an aristocratic constellation whose major star is called Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). But we already know that this Dickensian situation is only an illusion, that Saltburn is preparing to leave the path of the social chronicle to sink into the murky waters of desire and the unconscious. No one will emerge from this dive unscathed, neither the characters nor the spectators. Neither does the film, which emerges fascinating but as if mutilated by the contradictory impulses of its author.

Before Saltburn , Emerald Fennell’s second feature film after Promising Young Woman (2020), begins in earnest, Oliver Quick, a little older, an adult, speaking to an unknown interlocutor, detailed the feelings that Felix inspired in him at the time. Love, well almost. Before meeting the poor young man barely out of adolescence, we already know that he contains within him the material necessary for the construction of the self-confident, vaguely worrying adult, who we discover at the curtain rise .

A monstrous caricature

Either way, Oliver Quick isn’t a very reliable narrator. In Oxford, he presents himself as the scion of a family that is much more than dysfunctional, ravaged by addictions and poverty. This displayed marginality, combined with a good deed judiciously accomplished towards Felix Catton, allows him to arouse the compassion and – perhaps – the affection of the young man.

When the summer holidays of 2007 arrive, the friendship between the two young people has already cracked, victim of the sudden variations in mood arising from the gap which separates their social classes. The news of the death of Oliver’s father encourages Felix to ignore them and invite his fellow student to spend the summer at the family home, Saltburn.

Saltburn is not just any English manor (you will find it in Northamptonshire guides under the name Drayton House). A labyrinthine building to which successive generations have added elements of contradictory styles, from Gothic to neoclassical, Saltburn is a monstrous caricature of these mansions which made the success of British productions from Noblesse oblige to Downton Abbey .

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