Tuesday, November 21, 2023

One very weird summer vacation


   Emerald Fennell's Saltburn skewers those who aspire to the heights of wealth and privilege, with the writer/director indulging her taste for evisceration, exaggeration, and obvious provocation.
    Fennell focuses on Oliver Quick, an Oxford student played by Barry Keoghan. The bookish Quick, whose name sounds as if it were lifted from a Dickens' novel, attracts the attention of one of Oxfords  cool guys (Jacob Elordi). 
     Increasingly comfortable with his newfound acceptance, Oliver tells Elordi's Felix that he won't be going home for the summer, despite the recent death of his alcoholic father. He says he can't bear to be around his mentally deranged mother; he wants to keep his high-achieving life on track.
  Perhaps out of pity or maybe because he's kind, Felix invites Oliver to visit Saltburn, the massive estate where his family lives in aristocratic splendor and where Felix, despite his obvious entitlement,  seems closest to normal.
  Turns out the rest of Felix's family consists of bizarrely drawn characters, all vividly sketched in caricature fashion. Mom (Rosamund Pike) speaks through clenched teeth, launching acidic barbs in all directions; Dad (Richard E. Grant) seems monumentally out of touch; sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) reeks of trouble. Her mother describes her as "sexually incontinent."
  Two additional characters took up residence at Saltburn before Oliver's arrival. These hangers-on include another Oxford student (Archie Madekwe), a young man who's somehow related to the family and a family friend (Carey Mulligan) who insists on spewing repeated tales of the catastrophes that have befallen her. 
  The butler (Paul Rhys) seems to regard himself as superior to one and all. Perhaps he's the referee in a game in which the participants have lost sight of all boundary lines.
   OK, sounds like we're on the road to a broadly conceived comedy of manners but Fennell, who directed Promising Young Woman, has other things in mind. Her movie becomes increasingly bizarre -- perhaps even perverse. That shift gathers force when Oliver, whose creepy leanings already have been established, climbs into the bathtub where Felix recently had been bathing and, by the way, masturbating. Oliver starts to drink the bathwater as it swirls down the drain.
    Clearly, Oliver is not what he seems. You certainly wouldn't want to ask him how he spent his summer vacation.
    The detail about the bathtub might be a spoiler; I include it to ward off the squeamish and to demonstrate that Fennell specializes in sights intended to make us wince, perhaps the equivalent of the queasy responses elicited by graphically repellent gore in horror films.
    I'd be lying if I didn't say that some of this is entertaining and funny -- in a twisted sort of way. 
    Like Promising Woman, Saltburn wraps up with far-fetched twists that continue Fennell's outrageous march through developments that are meant, I think, to encourage us to look back and search for clues that might have tipped us off to where the movie was headed.
     On one level, Saltburn -- by including images that invite averted eyes  -- can be viewed as a movie that dresses for dinner and then throws up on itself. On another, it's a daring comic display of the base motivations that underly class privilege.
    Whatever view you take -- and I'd opt for the latter -- Fennell takes us on a ride that bounces over some wicked bumps. Obviously I can't know her intent, but by the look of things, I'd guess, as was the case in Promising Woman,  that she prefers comedy that leaves bite marks.

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