By now, the buzz around Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s sweaty, lascivious sophomore feature about a middle-class interloper in a vacuously rich family, has begun to settle into two camps. On one side, viewers and the plurality of critics who find the film, which had one of the most successful limited releases this year in the US before expanding nationwide last weekend, to be a flashy, self-satisfied mess of empty provocations. And on the other, those who see Fennell’s remix of Brideshead Revisited and the The Talented Mr Ripley with a dash of mid-aughts Abercrombie & Fitch as a successfully absorbing erotic thriller with titillating shocks. Depraved, but in a fun way, to summarize the predominant sentiment on TikTok. (Vulture, ever the purveyor of the chattering class, neatly summarized the rift between its own staff.)
Everyone agrees that Saltburn, for the most part, looks good – lush, attractive, expensive. (It helps that it stars the Euphoria actor and ascendant screen heartthrob Jacob Elordi.) But are its squirm-inducing visuals – a character slurping another’s cummy bathwater, a literally cocky ending – the mark of perverse genius, or cheap, hollow tricks masquerading as it?
The Saltburn divide is, in my view, less a product of the film’s intention as satire than its artifices – its visual provocations, its luxe tableaus of aristocratic wealth and debauchery, its bold and underlined telegraphing of desire. In a word, its vibes, and how to process entertainment that is predominantly, and sometimes successfully, indexed on them.
I don’t mean that to be derogatory – for all its derision as a woo-woo counter-culture term co-opted by capitalism (ie Spotify playlists) vibes are a powerful tool of cinema, a catch-all term for the abstract, ineffable feelings that can be produced by art. Vibes can be the portal to the intangible particulars of another time, place, era; in Sofia Coppola’s impressionistic Priscilla, for example, an airy reverie of the early 60s conveys the isolation and naivety undergirding Priscilla Presley’s romance with Elvis. Numerous festival circuit films this year – Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest, Annie Baker’s Janet Planet, Steve McQueen’s Occupied City – use feelings, mood, visual language and sensory experience to communicate a sliver of the unspoken human experience; together, as the New York Times’ Beatrice Loayza wrote, they argue against the tyranny of story in how we evaluate screen-based media.
There is an argument for and unique utility to vibes, or “moments of audiovisual eloquence”, as the New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka put it on the ascendance of vibes on TikTok, where users have been charmed by Saltburn’s mildly deceptive marketing as a hot film, the shock of the bathtub scene, or the seemingly chummy relationship between Elordi and his co-star Barry Keoghan.
Saltburn is a knowingly vibes-forward work, and Fennell is good at them. She leans heavily on luscious montages, nostalgic needle drops (most effectively MGMT’s Time to Pretend) and dioramas of tortured beauty and brawn. It opens with an adult Oliver Quick (Keoghan) proclaiming he was “never in love” with Elordi’s gorgeously aloof Felix Catton, and then lavishes close-ups on Felix’s sweat, the nape of his neck, his abs, his frame in caress, as spied through a window. This, we’re summarily told, is a film about intoxication and fixation. It wants you to look and feel first, think second. (Think more and everything unravels, namely the whole plot.)
Vibes like this enchant; they can also distract, overcompensate, mislead. For all its gestures at an eat-the-rich satire, Saltburn appears nothing but lush. It revels in its gargantuan manor house, ludicrous plot twists and aristocratic daffiness via the reliable scene-stealers Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant, as the Catton parents. The logic – thin characters and groundless plot coasting on seductive aura – echo Euphoria, TV’s foremost vehicle of vibes. Like Saltburn, Sam Levinson’s HBO show is richly colored, excessively provocative and frustratingly thin, though never boring. And it has inspired a similarly divided audience response. Is it genius or empty? Genuinely titillating or baiting? Edgy or dumb?
In both cases, I would say the latter, because both overestimate their power, mistaking vibes for depth and, more sinfully in Saltburn’s case, overestimating and undermining their power. There’s the botched nostalgia, for one; the film starts with a full-throated announcement that this is the class of 2006 at Oxford – ripe, then, for the ascendant mid-aughts nostalgia for millennials – and then plays fast and loose with the time period. There are no smartphones, sure, but there’s no specificity, either. The characters watch a film released in 2007 (Superbad) and do karaoke to songs popular in 2008 (Flo Rida’s Low). Many have written elsewhere about how the film has nothing to say about class or the perversion of wealth, but it also has little that feels 2006 about it, either. It’s just around the time when Fennell herself was at Oxford.
Its aim for an era is haphazard, at best; the vibes are lazy. So, too, are Fennell’s efforts to provoke through nudity, sex and violence, which are for sure uncomfortable yet never grounded in a sense of a real human character, the kind needed to have desire in the first place. Some get halfway there (spoilers ahead) – Oliver’s bathwater moment, or eating out Venetia on her period, are self-satisfied provocations for an increasingly puritanical moviegoing public, but those scenes at least try to literalize Ollie’s consumption of the Cattons’ wealth as something carnal. Ollie fucking Felix’s grave, or dancing nude in the mansion he’s finally, nonsensically won? It plays as an opportunity for a film-maker to have a hot actor writhe in the wet dirt and prance with no clothes. It is shock without genuine surprise – all vibes, no narrative intention to anchor them.
Which makes, for me, the film’s intention as an arousing satire, a portrait of desire, feel sour. Vibes can cover a lot of ground; certain ones, like the candy-colored buzzsaws in Saltburn or Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman, work better on some people than others. But they can’t mask an intention, a coherent specificity of character or place or idea, that isn’t there.