Saltburn Is Here — & It’s Just As Confusingly Horny As You Hoped It Would Be

Spoilers ahead. There's something distinctly unnerving about leaving the cinema and not being able to process what you just watched. 'What the fuck just happened?' 'Why am I horny?' 'Was that a Britney Spears shirt?' These are just some of the words that might come out of your mouth after watching Emerald Fennell's new film, Saltburn.
Emerald Fennell's (Promising Young Woman, Killing Eve) new film Saltburn is hard to define. It's a story about love, desire and obsession that's part twisty psychological thriller and part laugh-until-you-weep comedy. It's also super, super gay.
The film follows Oliver, played by Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a shy scholarship student at Oxford who quickly becomes infatuated with the charming and aristocratic Felix, played by Australia's own Jacob Elordi (Euphoria). Despite their clear differences, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family's sprawling estate, Saltburn. Soon, we're taken on a wild journey that's just as sexy as it is dark.
Saltburn's star-studded cast includes Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Alison Oliver, Archie Madakwe, Carey Mulligan, and Richard E. Grant.
Much of Fennell's body of work to date has predominantly centred around female protagonists. While it may appear as a departure to delve into a narrative about male sexual desire through a queer lens, the Oscar-winning writer and director tells Refinery29 Australia that she prefers not to confine herself to specific themes or characters.
"I don't think our imaginations are limited really to just ourselves, or at least I hope they aren't," she tells Refinery29 Australia. "The way in which [Oliver] presented himself to me, it was so visceral and so deeply felt, it was always the story I wanted to tell next."
"I have very little control, in a funny way, about who comes and finds me. That's what it always feels like with characters — that they kind of appear and they don't really go."
Fennell's take on homoeroticism is decisively fresh. Small but impactful shots are littered throughout the film, showcasing her unique ability to capture intimacy. Close-ups of Elordi's body hair draped in dappled sunlight. Elordi smoking in front of a window with sunlight pouring through, giving him a god-like essence. Elordi lying on the floor, shirtless, panting, "It's so fucking hot in here". (TikTok is going to have a field day with that one). Some might say that it's the female gaze at its very best.
But Fennell insists that it's her own unique perspective that she approaches films — and this queer film — from. "I don't have any other frame of reference outside of my own gaze," Fennell explains. "But there is something about making a film where everything is charged with erotic and violent tension."
Sexual desire and transgression permeate through the film, even in the simplest of shots. "The way we shoot the house is as a fetish object, and every person in this family is enormously sexually seductive, as well as repellent," explains Fennell.
"Once you're alive... once your senses get stimulated to a certain degree, it does become scorched earth. It does touch everything. There are no limits. I think lots of people feel that way about desire, and understandably so. That it can't have a name put on it, that it isn't directed in one particular way, that it's limitless."

"I've never been able to understand why cinema, you know, in inverted commas with a capital C, has to look one specific way and feel and sound one specific way, with is mostly kind of serious and male."

emerald fennell
It's impossible to discuss Saltburn without acknowledging the distinct noughties lens in which it unfolds. Set in 2006, nostalgia washes over the screen. Characters read hardcover copies of Harry Potter. Low-waisted pants abound. The soundtrack transports you back, with indie bangers from MGMT, Bloc Party and Cold War Kids. At one point, one character, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) wears a 'DUMP HIM' shirt, a clear nod to the iconic paparazzi shot of Britney Spears.
It's not the first time that Fennell has included references to iconic female pop culture icons in her work. In Promising Young Woman, there was a two-minute long sequence of Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham singing along to Paris Hilton's one-hit-wonder, 'Stars Are Blind'. For Fennell, these references aren't just an ode to the things she loves — they make a statement about cultural elitism, especially in film.
"I've never been able to understand why cinema, you know, in inverted commas with a capital C, has to look one specific way and feel and sound one specific way, with is mostly kind of serious and male," she says.
"All of the things that I love, whether it's Britney or Paris Hilton or pink sparkly jackets; there's no reason at all that they should be any less profound or serious than any other thing."
"You can't pretend that a film doesn't exist in a world of culture, that people aren't coming to a film (particularly one like this), which is in many ways, playing with a very specific genre," Fennell says. "I prefer to acknowledge that."
One reason this translates onto the screen is that Fennell takes every aspect of filmmaking seriously, especially female-dominated specialities that are often neglected. "The more classically female-led departments like costume, hair, and makeup are treated with as much gravitas and seriousness as anything else."
But while the film's noughties and indie sleaze era influence is unabashedly fun, there's a turning point where it no longer feels like a silly, camp version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It takes an unexpected turn, slowly beginning its descent into darkness before the audience has even fully registered what's going on. Saltburn etches its way into viewers' minds, in large part thanks to its assortment of some of the most objectively salacious scenes we've seen on the screen in recent memory.
Describing the viewer experience is challenging due to the sheer absurdity of some scenes. For example, in one scene, we watch Oliver rim the bottom of a bathtub, desperate to slurp up Felix's jizz-filled bathwater. In another, we see Oliver buck naked and dancing to Sophie Ellis-Bextor's 'Murder On The Dancefloor', flaccid penis flailing in the wind. It's unhinged, pure and simple.

"In lots of the scenes, you have people laughing, people screaming, people squealing. Writhing. Mortified. Unable to look. Can't stop looking. Turned on. Freaked out. That's what it should be about — going to the movies."

emerald fennell
But Fennell relishes in this discomfort. "What's thrilling is that you want to be able to get under people's skin to the degree that nobody can quite agree on what they're watching or how it should make them feel," she tells Refinery29 Australia. "I think there's lots of stuff in this film that everyone reacts so differently [to] in every single scene."
"In lots of the scenes, you have people laughing, people screaming, people squealing. Writhing. Mortified. Unable to look. Can't stop looking. Turned on. Freaked out. That's what it should be about — going to the movies."
If there's one scene that encapsulates why Emerald Fennell is an Oscar award-winning writer, director, producer and actor, it's in a simple moment that depicts Oliver going down on Felix's sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver) while she's on her period. Period sex is still something that's shrouded in taboo and rarely spoken about in real life, let alone shown on screen. Despite this, it's not an area Fennell shies away from.
"I just think it's really hot," she laughs. "It's such a tender scene. It's an act of service which we rarely see."
For Fennell, the inclusion of the period sex scene also acted as a greater metaphor for the overall themes in Saltburn, especially with questions around power — who has it and how you get it.
"Oliver is a person who is good at intuiting what people want," Fennell says. "He's been told in the scene before that Venetia is a masochist and that she has an eating disorder. Therefore, what he does in the next scene is to tell her that her body is beautiful and everything about it is beautiful and a turn-on. He has no qualms or squeamishness about her.
"I think that is a gift, actually. He gives her something that nobody else has ever given her — he dedicates himself to her pleasure."
In these moments, Fennell proves that while Saltburn can be shocking, it's not just for shock value. When it asks you to eat the rich, it's a call to dissect complex class dynamics. When it makes you squirm, it begs you to interrogate why you're simultaneously aroused. Brimming with profound reflections on power, class, sexuality and desire and easily the most shocking film of the year, Saltburn will sear itself into your mind from the very first viewing — and you'll want to let it stay.
Saltburn is playing in Australian cinemas now.
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