Everyone loves an underdog. Pop culture is rife with them, from Dan Humphrey to Richard Papen. And with her sophomore film Saltburn, Emerald Fennell throws her own creation into the ring. By now, you've probably encountered the seemingly working class outsider, Oliver Quick, played expertly by a game Barry Keoghan. You've also definitely fawned over the object of his obsession, a towering, deeply charismatic Felix Catton, enacted by Jacob Elordi – and with an eyebrow piercing, might I add.
The film, guaranteed to become a cult classic on visual presence alone, simmers with erotic tension. While it's been put forward as an anti-capitalist film the twist in the middle, and Fennell's sympathies towards her rich subjects, has polarised critics. Through Quick, Fennell leverages the paranoid fantasies of the rich and for a moment the film looks to be about balancing the scales. Then, and spoiler alert, we realise Quick is not the working class hero he pretends but actually middle class. Is Fennell taking aim at the resentment of the middle class? Does she believe people operate under an anti-capitalist manifesto when what they actually desire is upward mobility? It's a cynical read. What the film gets at, though, is that while we can desire the equal distribution of wealth, we also can't stop obsessing over the rich and how they live. The intersection between those two points is where things get noxious.
Want more meditations on class? Head to the cinema and watch Saltburn for a second, then third time, and come to your own conclusion. Then when you've gorged yourself sick on 2006 nostalgia, strap in for the films below, a curated round up of movies like Saltburn.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
It was Barry Keoghan's performance in this disturbing Yorgos Lanthimos' film that convinced Emerald Fennell to cast the actor in Saltburn. Speaking to IndieWire, the director said, "He’s got a kind of sex appeal and a vulnerability and a physical presence and a sort of darkness, or he can at least communicate these things in a way that is very rare". If you were drawn to the darkness of Oliver Quick in Saltburn, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer you witness Keoghan turn the dial up as a vengeful interloper. Also, that heart surgery scene in the beginning? It's real.
Poison Ivy (1992)
There's a lot to discuss about Poison Ivy, the 90s erotic thriller starring a 16-year-old Drew Barrymore newly discharged from rehab. For one, save for a brief cameo, Leonardo DiCaprio's scenes were cut, as director Katt Shea admits he was completely miscast as the school bully. Then there's the wardrobes, the queer subtext between Barrymore's loner nymphet Ivy and Sara Gilbert’s angsty rich kid Sylvie, and the fact that the underage affair between Ivy and Sylvie's dad would never fly today. See any parallels with Saltburn?
With his Oscar-winning film, Korean director Bong Joon-ho asks audiences to consider who the real parasite is? Is it the poor and resourceful Kim family, who one-by-one begin working for the uber wealthy Park family, or their employers, leeches on society? In Saltburn, Emerald Fennell embarks on a similar line of questioning, with an equally effective use of comedy.
Emily the Criminal (2022)
Aubrey Plaza plays a woman saddled with crippling student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record. When she turns to blue collar fraud to make ends meet, the film takes an anti-capitalist turn and raises a middle finger to respectability. Plus, like Elordi in Saltburn, Plaza is sporting a very nostalgic face piercing.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
In an interview with The Face, Fennell points to Cruel Intentions as a cultural touchstone which without, Saltburn wouldn't have been possible. "It had cruelty and satire built-in. It was funny and it was self-aware. But it really got to you as well, even though it was so over-the-top. Dangerous Liaisons, which it’s based on, is amazing and also very baroque... I totally wanted people to feel the same way about Saltburn, that they could be part of that world." For this reason, and, I don't know, the whole erotic sex thriller thing, you should queue it up after Saltburn for a transatlantic spin.
Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)
In a scarily accurate assessment of Gen Z, director Halina Reijn and writer Kristen Roupenian speak to the absurdities of our chronically online world in this refreshing whodunit. Starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Rachel Sennott, Myha'la Herrold, Pete Davidson, and Chase Sui Wonders, the film also takes aim at the privileged through the eyes of outsider, Bee.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
It would be remiss of us to gloss over The Talented Mr. Ripley considering that this film was often invoked to describe the plot of Saltburn prior to its release. Predatory interloper who wears glasses, gorgeous vistas, and class envy. This is Saltburn's twin flame.
Triangle of Sadness (2022)
There's nothing more humbling than watching Triangle of Sadness before a big trip, as I did earlier this year on my way to Thailand. A mix of Below Deck and The White Lotus, if it doesn't make you a more conscious traveller, it will bring you a laugh at the expense of the rich. The scenes of European wealth and beauty are juxtaposed with European greed and tragedy. Come for Woody Harrelson, stay for Dolly De Leon and Harris Dickinson.