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Saltburn Gets It Right About Class

“Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you” — Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited.

Saltburn, a film about the British upper classes, written and directed by a member of it —

Emerald Fennell — is perhaps one of the most divisive films of the year. Most agree it is an aesthetic triumph — indulgent, erotic, and colourful — often favourably compared to Brideshead Revisited or The Talented Mr Tom Ripley.

But most reviewers stop the praise there. The Independent argues that “as a class satire, it reaches no conclusions,” the New Statesman and The Spectator make the point that it is just as critical of the jealous, fawning middle classes — epitomised by Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick — than it is of the uber-rich.

In a sense that’s all true. The film is not nice about Oliver Quick — especially set against the angelic, generally warm-hearted Felix, whose biggest flaw is his ignorance of the immensity of his privilege. It’s true Oliver kills Felix; and it’s also true that by the end of the film, the viewer is drawn to see Oliver Quick as spoiling a world of decaying beauty, and so comes to see him as the villain.

But in another, the determination to cram this film into a two-dimensional critique of class is wrongfooted. Class is a subject that is immense, impersonal, and defined by ambiguity. It tends to have a corrupting effect on all it touches, intoxicating everyone and everything, creating a world of unreality, defined by a cruel and shallow confidence. And I think Saltburn does quite a good job at capturing that.

Saltburn reeks of the corrupting influence of class. In Saltburn, class acts as this monster that possesses everyone, making them pure aesthetic and nothing more. The result is a constant longing to be something more — and yet, this longing can’t help but be articulated through the very class paradigm that characters like Felix are trying to escape.

For Felix, Oliver is an attempt to escape this inhuman, and often inhumane, world — but, through that very attempt, reinforces his subordination to it. Oliver is treated as a bauble, loved because of what he gives Felix, a connection to something ‘authentic’ and ‘real’, rather than because of any real affection between them.

Here, I can’t help feeling parallels to the Royal Family, who, despite immense wealth and privilege, live a life that is defective and unreal. Each is looked at first and foremost as a royal, whose success or failure results from the effective performance of ritual. Students at St Andrews don’t need to be reminded of this — it is here, of course, where Prince William sought out normality from the endless desert of social performance.  

For Oliver, Felix is something similar, a form of original sin separating him from the world of normal people — where the humdrum values of the day-to-day melt into flashy homogeneity. For Oliver, to lose a connection to Felix, to the estate, to the money, to the dinner parties, to the Cattons, would be a return to a life he does not want to live. So, threatened with it, he opts for violence.

In part, this connection between violence and class is the genius of Fennell’s Saltburn. Class works on the basis of hierarchy and of a subtle symbolic language that everyone has to learn. As a result, everyone playing the class game is always insecure — keen to protect what they have and fight for more. Embedded in the upper classes is a constant tendency to exclude, to demarcate — to create boundaries and barriers as a means to reinforce ownership. That tendency, of self-referential exclusivity, creates a world accountable only to itself — and a value system to match.

Hence, in Saltburn, as in the British upper classes generally, values cease to matter. Depicted is an amoral world obsessed with aesthetics — one capable of producing the politics of Boris Johnson, the fashion of Market Street, and the ethics of the City of London. 

Truly, it’s charm that kills.

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