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Saltburn and Subverting the Passing Narrative

A little over halfway through “Saltburn”—writer/director Emerald Fennell’s early aughts-set class study—it’s clear the jig is up. Wealthy golden boy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) takes the shape-shifting Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) on a road trip to what he believes is a broken household helmed by a drunken, destitute mother. Winding down country roads in Felix’s open-top Jeep, Oliver sees the literal signs pointing the pair to their destination. The camera cuts close to Oliver’s face, once fixed in furtive glee, now twisting toward Felix. Keoghan’s stable blue eyes desperately widen, pleading to Felix to turn around. “I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, mate. You have to fix this,” says Felix. The pair pull up to a spacious home on a cozy residential street. When the door opens to Quick’s elated mother, the vision of suburban quaintness, a film as shaky as Quick’s subterfuge crumbles too.    

At the outset, Fennell’s film is suspicious of gloss. Attending Oxford University on scholarship, Oliver Quick, fashioned with off-the-rack clothes, is an immediate outcast among the upper-class student body. He is on the periphery of wealth, but needs a way in. From his dorm window, he catches sight of the slender Felix holding court among the school’s elites. Felix becomes the door that Oliver wants to open. He soon hatches a series of coincidences—like loaning his bike to a stranded Felix—that position him closer to his desired aristocratic orbit. Felix’s rich friends, particularly his cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), look down on the impoverished interloper. But the paternalistic Felix is intrigued by Oliver. 

Before long Felix invites Oliver to his table for drinks; he even helps a broke Oliver save face in front of Farleigh by paying for the round that Oliver was expected to cover. In the radiant presence of the broad, unencumbered Felix, Oliver is tiny, his short stature rendered tinier by his caved in shoulders. Oliver stammers and stutters, brandishes a half smile to bite away the insults lobbed by the suspicious Farleigh. Late night raves and down time in dorms, soundtracked by MGMT and Bloc Party, are where Oliver and Felix grow close. There is a prying empathy to Felix and a designed guardedness to Oliver: The latter gives just enough information—detailing a harsh family life involving a dealer father and a drunkard mother—to keep Felix curious. But even Felix grows tired of the hapless, lustful Oliver. It’s only after hearing that Oliver’s father has died that Felix becomes sympathetic again, inviting the pliant, adoring classmate to the stately country home of Saltburn for a summer of bitchy rich people laying in lush fields and admiring each other’s physiques. 

While many, like Manuela Lazic, have interpreted Oliver Quick as the newest on a long list of strivers, the majority of “Saltburn” is more specifically a passing narrative. In fact, when thrown in comparison with “Chameleon Street,” “Gattaca,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” it’s an unusual one at that. In these films, the passer dons the mores, attitudes, and appearance of the dominant class in an attempt to gain privileges withheld from their actual lot. By gaining entry, they show how the signifiers of these spaces are meaningless. Such passing disrupts established boundaries, sometimes causing the dominant caste to question the stability of their space. Oliver’s entry into Saltburn, causes similar disruption: He impresses Felix’s aloof father (Richard E Grant), makes eyes with Felix’s mother Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), and performs cunnilingus on Felix’s sister (Alison Oliver). In this space, Fennell doesn’t position Oliver as tragic or sympathetic. He is a hollow, conniving and wicked figure—carnally weak when approximated to wealth or Felix—yet unhampered by the deep struggle with identity inherent to a passing narrative. 

In Wendell B. Harris Jr’s “Chameleon Street,” for instance, Douglass Street is a Black man who graduates from simple cons to complex impersonations. Though his masquerading isn’t a passing between races, from Black to white, it does grapple with the anxiety that arises through authentically moving through spheres: Street’s most audacious facade occurs when he poses as a doctor from Harvard. By adopting a doctoral humor, dressing the part, altering his diction, and referring to a medical dictionary for reference, he dupes the head of the white hospital. His superior  need only see the name “Harvard” on Street’s resume to wholly buy this Black man in this exclusively white space. Like many passers, Street not only despises his humble beginnings among the Black working class, he also loathes the hegemonic white people he needs to impress. With Street’s passing comes psychological angst too: The changing of masks, the need to become invisible in these spaces, of course, recalls W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness and Ralph Ellison's writing about the invisibility of Black identity. 

These theoretical strains similarly pass through Andrew Niccol’s Sci-Fi thriller “Gattaca.” In the near-future, castes are defined not by money or race, but by genes. Those with the best genetic makeup are elevated as “valid”; the ones with broken patterns are relegated to menial labor as “in-valids.” In a bid to travel to space, the resourceful dreamer with broken genes, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), takes the identity of the once gifted athlete, now paralyzed, Jerome Morrow (Jude Law). Vincent’s intense passing cycles from broad appearance down to the microbiological level: he surgically alters his legs; scatters Jerome’s hair and excess dead skin around his workspace to throw off any authorities, and even submits Jerome’s urine in place of his during the office’s weekly tests. Jerome and Vincent grow so close, they’re a nearly indistinguishable blending of two consciousnesses. While every passing narrative concerns the anxiety of the passer, they can also interrogate the fears of the hegemonic class: If they can’t tell the insider and outsider apart, then their sense of identity, in turn, is shattered. Usually, like in the case of “Gattaca,” the class is oblivious to the passer until it’s too late.

In Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” however, the dramatic angst surfaces from the passers’ inability to fool the dominant class. Through a twist of fate, a Princeton jacket borrowed from a friend, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is enlisted by the wealthy father of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) to retrieve Dickie from his unending Italian vacation. Tom gets close to Dickie by posing as a classmate from Princeton, with a similar insatiable love of jazz. The lower-class Tom, who works in New York city as a men’s bathroom attendant, uses his proximity to Dickie—his bottomless wealth and unceasing confidence—to siphon a lifestyle bankrolled by Dickie. Though Tom performs his part, Dickie and his fiancée Marge see past the charade. At a party, when Dickie cheekily confronts Tom, Ripley admits to never having attended Princeton. “Do you even like Jazz,” Dickie playfully asks to a seething Tom.   

The “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” however, isn’t just a film about passing between classes. It’s about passing as straight too. When Dickie rebuffs Tom’s affections, Tom murders him and takes over his identity. During his con, Tom falls for Peter (Jack Davenport) and Meredith (Cate Blanchett) pines for Tom. The double-double consciousness at play layers identity atop identity politics. To desire becoming and being with Dickie, paradoxically, for Tom, is to become straight. 

Thereby rendering his immutable being, queerness, tragically mutable. The self-destructive end—Tom literally smothers away his homosexual love—is a reminder that not every passing narrative featuring a class striver results in a triumphant shattering of social norms. They can shatter the individual too. 

Unlike your prototypical passing narrative, the subterfuge in Fennell’s “Saltburn” doesn’t come from the protagonist masquerading as a class above. Rather, Oliver masks himself as a class below to gain exclusive advantages. He assumes that Felix would never have been interested in him if he were middle class; he’d be too boring (judging by Felix’s exclusively wealthy friend group, you get the sense that’s true). Viewers can, of course, also interpret the switch-up as Fennell critiquing the paternalism of the rich: Every year Felix befriends a new lower-class boy only to discard them once he becomes bored. But Oliver’s con speaks to a persistent question in passing narratives: If the dominant class can’t recognize their own ilk, then aren’t the signifiers that define the group made up? Or put in another way, in the case of “Saltburn,” doesn’t that mean the traits the rich affix to the lower-class—meek, obedient, lost, and helpless—are inventions too? Similar to Tom Ripley, Oliver Quick artfully pulls on the heartstrings of the higher caste. Tom does so by appealing to Dickie’s sense of regret for not helping Tom’s dead lover sooner; Oliver sees an opening by fabricating his father’s death. 

Similar to other passing narratives, “Saltburn” is consumed, primarily through Oliver’s sexual appetite, by the boundary and fluidity between truth and appearance. In fact, “Saltburn” is strongest when Oliver’s motives are, at best, an ambiguous bundle of carnal desires. The two masks he wears—his false class and his furtive attractions—become a mirror for this rich family’s fatal flaws: They need to be worshiped for their station and bodies. The passer as mirror occurs in other passing movies too. In “Chameleon Street,” Street infiltrates Yale merely by serving French word salads to the white student body. Like the other spaces he navigates, no one questions him for fear of revealing their own idiocy. In “Gattaca,” when Vincent tricks the battery of tests meant to exclude the impure, he’s proving the inefficacy of the genetic markers that define the valid caste. Tom deconstructs the same notions in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” When he poses as Dickie, few people give him a second look. The seeming stability of the caste is enough reason for even the rich never to question. 

In “Saltburn,” that false stability can be seen in the very appearance of the family’s country home. With its strong oak interiors, its sturdy stone exteriors, and the vastness of its grounds, Saltburn is a monument to the stasis of Felix’s wealth. You would think Fennell would better connect the symbolism of the home—particularly through servant class—with Oliver’s carnal and monetary pursuits. But the symbolism lacks definition. 

Worst yet, “Saltburn” has a glaring disinterest in the psychological. By comparison, “Chameleon Street” is obsessed with Street’s multiple personalities, his self-diagnosing and self-loathing. Vincent in “Gattaca” is defined by his rivalry with his genetically “superior” brother Anton (Loren Dean). Tom’s self-hatred of his class and queerness in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” permanently fractures his sexual identity. Even Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between,” which Fennell has noted as a major influence on “Saltburn,” has greater psychological tension. In Losey’s adaptation of L. P. Hartley’s same-titled novel, Leo Colston (Dominic Guard), a young boy, arrives at a Norfolk country house for the summer only to become the proverbial middle man in a burning relationship between Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie) and tenant farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). Throughout “The Go-Between,” Losey pushes forward a few decades to an adult Leo, now grappling with the trauma, desire, and loss of innocence during that summer. These films desperately want viewers to understand, even empathize with the striver’s desire for acceptance and the cost they must bear to find it. 

Fennell lacks a similar interest in Oliver. He exists purely as a carnal character. In that respect, “Saltburn” most closely aligns to René Clément’s adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Purple Noon,” wherein Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is an apathetic soul searching to satiate his appetite for lust and greed. In “Purple Noon,” Clément isn’t out for biting class satire; but for postcard views of Italy matched to Delon’s breathtaking beauty. If that was all Fennell wanted out of “Saltburn,” such a result would be doable. Even commendable. After all, this is a prodigious step forward in her visual language from “Promising Young Woman,” a film similarly concerned with masks. And yet, you can’t help but feel like Fennell is aiming for something more than arrestingly shot teenage thriller territory.  

It’s telling that Fennell doesn’t interrogate the rich solely through Oliver Quick. Farleigh is there too, occupying several different worlds. He isn’t independently wealthy (Farleigh and his mom require a monthly allowance from Felix’s father). He isn’t quite part of the family either; he’s merely a cousin. He is both American and British, and racially ambiguous. Similar to Oliver, Farleigh despises a class that is just out of reach. When Farleigh goes to Felix, asking to give his mother more money, the conversation turns to race. “I mean, you do know how this looks, right? Making me come to you with a begging bowl,” says a perturbed Farleigh. A vacant Felix is confused, then riled. “Is that where you want to take this? Make this a race thing,” he responds. The camera remains fixed on the vexed Farleigh, only partially listening to Felix’s fragile “We’re your family. We hardly even notice you’re different,” defense. The scene makes you wonder how much different the movie could be, from a passing standpoint, if Madekwe were playing Oliver Quick. Beyond this scene, Fennell’s intertwining of race and class as a similar stasis of being is nonexistent. What is the internal psychological angst of Farleigh?  What does it mean to be between worlds, not in a tragic sense, but precariously? 

Even with Oliver, Fennell stops short. Rather than illuminating any internal struggle in Oliver, the writer/director opts for pure depravity. A night of costumed reverie, copious drug taking, and opulent spending results in Felix’s mysterious death. With Felix out of the way, Oliver moves toward currying favor with the rest of the family until only Felix’s mother remains. Fennell should map ambiguity onto these events; we needn’t know the mechanics of Oliver’s turn from lust into bloodlust. But she over-explains.

As Lady Elspeth, the last surviving member of the family, lays unconscious in bed on a ventilator, the truth is haphazardly revealed. Oliver nestles over Lady Elspeth’s nose. “It’s been a pleasure looking after you,” he says, leaning closer to blow smoke on her face, “so thank you for trusting me.” “After all those terrible, terrible accidents,” he sighs. “But is there really such a thing as an accident? Accidents are for people like you.” Oliver lowers her bed, taking off his dinner jacket. “For the rest of us, there’s work,” he concludes. Racing strings and a stitching together of Felix and Oliver’s past encounters, all engineered by the interloper, reveal how this was all part of his master plan. In the process, Oliver’s love and hatred of Felix is intermingled with his attraction and disdain for the upper class. It’s a messy metaphor wrapped in a modern cinematic desire to over-explain rather than remain knotty.    

Fennell doesn’t know what or who Quick is; she can only reverse-engineer him. As a result, there is no desire to understand him. It’s a surprising indifference that runs counter to a host of passing narratives: In “Chameleon Street,” Harris is fascinated by Street and attempts to connect with him on an intellectual level. Vincent in “Gattaca” is a pure, sympathetic figure to be supported in the face of eugenics. Even Tom, a murderer in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” becomes an object of pity. But Oliver Quick never evolves past being an outgrowth of a class to be feared. And while the wealthy are depicted as petty, even manipulative, they are somehow, someway, more grounded than the sociopathic Oliver. By the end of most passing narratives about class strivers, we’re almost always rooting for the passer to succeed, or at the very least, mournful of the cost. As Oliver dances nakedly through Saltburn does anyone feel anything for or about him? 

Maybe that’s Fennell’s statement: The upper class are just as depraved as us, and vise-versa. But even in a teenage dark comedy, that conclusion is too simplistic. When you’re making a satire about class and race, shouldn’t there be more? Fennell’s heart isn’t fully into skewering the rich. She’s not even all that interested in the middle class. Instead, “Saltburn” is an ambitious series of provocations that wants to have it both ways: To be a big dumb, absurd laugh, and to and to make firm statements about identity. It is a bull in a china shop after the china has been taken out, never breaking the subjectivity of its entertainingly evil, albeit hollow main character.  

  

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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