Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Oxford Phase: Friendship and Identity

Saltburn will be disappointing if we watch it for 75 minutes. Nevertheless, it endeavors for an extended duration to persist, stretching to 127 minutes. Besides hindering genuine enjoyment for those who know what they are looking for, it fills the experience with shocks, confusion, and unnecessary despair while also being overly long. Emerald Fennell, the director and writer of this film, is the creative force behind it. Her earlier project, Promising Young Woman, explores themes of revenge and horror associated with sexual violence, earning her recognition. Fennell deliberately seeks reactions from the audience. In the time travel narrative, we will journey back to 2006, where Oliver (the scholarly individual) and Felix (the charismatic individual) fulfill their responsibilities at the University of Oxford. These two men become friends. However, their friendship is somewhat obsessive but uneven. The situation becomes complex when one of them misinterprets their bond as love while the other continues, motivated by hidden needs and pretending to be self-sufficient.

They experience a significant moment when Oliver lends his headphones to Felix, something Oliver has been eagerly awaiting for a long time. This part in Oxford is like the film’s beginning, showing how Oliver sees Felix as a captivating presence. Meanwhile, Felix’s close friends only view Oliver as someone annoying. It is a part of the story filled with mystery, surreal scenes, and all the madness that arises during the post-adolescent phase. We can see that in Oxford, everyone is trying to figure out who they are. Although films like John Hughes’s Heathers and the series Euphoria with Jacob Elordi have explored similar themes more effectively, Fennell brings a tenderness, cruelty, and hunger that we can accept in these moments. Despite making such comparisons, Fennell effectively navigates the tumultuous phase of post-adolescence, illustrating the characters’ challenges in defining their identities.

The story becomes increasingly bizarre when Oliver visits Saltburn, feeling like it suddenly becomes three different films. Envy and desire become the main themes, overshadowing the film’s initial impression. Unfortunately, Fennell’s efforts to delve into psychopathology during this transition are somewhat rough and dull. Felix’s family is distant and emotionally stiff. They rely on a “stiff upper lip” mentality rather than expressing genuine emotions. Despite the bustling ambiance in Saltburn, reminiscent of people eagerly anticipating a new toy, Oliver, driven by his achievements, actively participates in the endeavor to blend in. His striking blue eyes, easy availability, and intelligence catch the attention of Felix’s mother, Elspeth. Merely being present causes Felix’s sister, Venetia, to become self-aware as if emerging from a zombie-like trance.

Stylistic Elements

In this oddity, we feel like Farleigh, Felix’s cousin who has been there all along. His demeanor becomes increasingly bothersome upon Oliver’s arrival. Despite being intriguing that Farleigh is the only non-white main character in Saltburn, it becomes a hinted-at fact in the film, addressed briefly but then casually discarded. Farleigh’s raised eyebrows make us wonder if he is concerned about money or perhaps jealous because Oliver can get very close to Felix. Yet, the film deviates from the typical narrative structure, where characters don’t respond directly to unfolding events. Though not due to subtle acting or luxurious screenplay, it’s all thanks to Richard E. Grant, who plays Felix’s father with dry humor that adds its touch to the film. Fennell’s style is more about appearance and bold actions than delving into deeper emotions. Instead of exploring profound feelings, she prefers clever movements and intriguing visuals.

We can see the film’s fondness for style in music video scenes, such as tracking shots and long montages. When the story becomes gothic, it feels like watching Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and Nine Inch Nails’ Closer. There’s a scene where Oliver spies on Felix doing intimate things in the bathtub—one of the infamous scenes in the film. Afterward, Oliver bends down to sip the drained bathwater with a crazy motion; it’s a strange but bold choice for character development and a twist. Regardless of using an unconventional scenario, the film also hints that it misses opportunities to stand out in the trashy genre. Despite the film’s efforts to generate bold and unexpected moments for shock or amusement, in the end, we observe an actor striving to prevent it from becoming ordinary. Instead, Fennell adheres to her distinctive style and metamorphoses the initially awkward and mild protagonist into a figure suitable for an alluring book cover—a clever virgin navigating the complexities of challenging the affluent while grappling with perilous desires. Despite being visually appealing, the narrative makes us wonder if the film remains effective and coherent in delivering an exciting viewing experience.

Critics say that using shock in Saltburn might overshadow its deeper themes. They believe an excessive focus on shock can divert attention, turning it into a pursuit of cheap thrills and manipulation, oversimplifying intricate concepts. But some folks argue the opposite, saying that provocative parts in the film can spark discussion, challenge norms, amp up emotions, and invite different interpretations. They also state that the director’s intentions and the context significantly influence the use of shock. Individuals have varying thresholds for what shocks or disturbs them, contributing to the diversity of reactions to the film. So, we can appreciate the film’s creativity and technical skills while still having reservations about certain parts that might make us uneasy. By being aware of the layers and talking openly about them, we can understand the film better and its place in today’s films. This way of thinking goes beyond just looking at the surface, letting us have a deeper appreciation for the film’s complexities and its role in the big picture of cinema.

Common Theme

The dominant theme is observable in this film and Promising Young Woman. Within the film, Fennell delves into the concept of considering sex as a potent tool, drawing parallels with a firearm. It premiered in 2020 when such ideas were also starting to gain prominence. Fennell shows her ability to take ideas that might be casually conversed about at a party or in informal discussions within an open atmosphere and skillfully shapes them into a concise and impactful narrative. Although a revenge ballad against rape culture and both formally and morally accurate, this film has its firmness because it allows the revenge aspect to overshadow the actual substance of the story. The delightful aspect of this film also revolves around Carey Mulligan, who served as the leading actress in Fennell’s prior film. This time, Mulligan plays Pamela, a character navigating the chaotic setting with a deadpan style. Mulligan skillfully blends hidden sorrow, hesitant speech, and a narrow perspective, creating a character that feels like Audrey Hepburn hiding behind the mystery of Greta Garbo. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge the resonance of the unique serenity displayed by both actresses in this film—it’s akin to engaging in karaoke with particular requirements within the story.

Promising Young Woman really gets into the whole revenge thing by digging deep into how its characters interact and the nitty-gritty of their relationships. Cassie, the main character, is front and center, dealing with the fallout from her best friend’s assault, and it drives the whole story. The film prompts contemplation, forcing us to confront the profound psychological repercussions of troubling experiences. They’re clever about it, putting Cassie in the spotlight and navigating through the crazy journey she’s on and the hurdles she faces in getting payback. The film doesn’t solely blame all men, which is commendable. Instead, it shows them as part of a messed-up culture of hating women. It brings complexity to the narrative by revealing broader issues in action rather than placing blame solely on individuals. It goes beyond assigning blame to individuals as well. The film lays bare how messed up the system is, letting bad guys get away with it and even protecting them. Cassie’s rage becomes a big deal, highlighting how survivors struggle to get justice through regular channels. While the film directly addresses revenge, it leaves certain aspects unresolved, not providing a complete picture of the consequences when one chooses that path. The conclusion is somewhat uncertain, prompting contemplation, yet it may leave us questioning the real repercussions of seeking revenge within the narrative.

Exploration of Themes

While Promising Young Woman is centered on feminist retribution, the core concept of Saltburn might be somewhat enshrouded in contemplation. Indicated by three dots resembling ellipses, the film implies a sense of ambiguity, prompting us to contemplate the unclear aspects. Played by Rosamund Pike, the character is responsible for delivering noteworthy dialogues and introducing unexpected moments in the film. Yet, the film seems to lack the exploration of ideas and profound emotional elements that genuinely resonate with our hearts. It appears that Fennell is trying to explore the theme of toxic elitism in her film. However, it’s like H&M Home giving us assembly instructions. Except here, it’s not as precise but rather evident. Indeed, the film doesn’t even hold up to such comparisons, especially when criticizing films about class differences or eat-the-rich themes. The most direct blunder occurs when Oliver and Farleigh karaoke; they perform Pet Shop Boys’ Rent. Within the karaoke scene, the explicit comment suggests that the film relies on external cultural references rather than authentically exploring themes inherent to the narrative.

The whole non-linear thing in Saltburn is both a challenge and its secret weapon. Watching it for the first time, we’ll find ourselves puzzled by the time jumps and unforeseen twists. But here’s the trick—the more we watch, the more layers it reveals; it’s like peeling an onion. Every time we revisit it, there’s a fresh aspect to comprehend, enhancing the overall richness of the experience. Unlike the usual chatter-heavy films, the film takes a chill pill on dialogue. They focus more on what we see and feel—visuals, vibes, and the whole atmosphere. Remaining vigilant and examining every minuscule detail is essential, as even the tiniest elements contribute to shaping the entire picture. We’re immersing ourselves in the visual and auditory components through sparse dialogue, enriching the overall immersive encounter. Unquestionably, the film might demand more time and mental effort than a typical film, but if we’re ready for the challenge and the rewards are substantial. Deciphering the wacky narrative, pondering over symbols, and getting into the vibe of its minimal dialogue—it’s a trip. This film steps out of the usual cinema playbook, giving us a mind-bending, thought-provoking ride that sticks with us long after the credits roll.

Character Development and Conclusion

Uncertainty remains regarding Fennell’s ability to craft compelling main characters in her narratives, prompting questions about the anticipation of character development. Barry Keoghan, who portrays this bookish man, attempts to blend various elements by borrowing a bit from famous roles like Alex Forrest, Carrie White, Travis Bickle, and John Doe. However, it falls short of creating a cohesive character. Keoghan struggles to unite the parts that may lose the essence that is real and coherent. The film’s attempt to develop an intricate character underscores the difficulty in attaining a distinct character goal. The narrative lacks a substantial “center,” a definitive yet fully evolving core that would render the character genuinely authentic and compelling within the story’s context. It seems that the film as a whole finds its justification towards the end, particularly highlighted when they mention the name of the prosthetic designer in the closing credits. This final part transforms into another music video. Yet, it is imbued with a considerable amount of cynicism, adopting an overly literal approach—some form of awkwardness that is so conspicuous it becomes disconcerting. The presented ending of the film leaves us wondering about the sincerity of the story the director truly intended. Therefore, it seems to prioritize appearance over sincerely exploring the themes.

Despite playing a substantial role in this film, Keoghan crafts an impressive yet distinctive character for Fennell’s vision through the role he gets. However, the film is more interested in the sensational aspects of planned sexual encounters and Keoghan’s nudity than in nuanced but genuine acting. Fennell’s focus as a director is not on developing authentic characters. Instead, it seems to emphasize explicit scenes and attention-grabbing content. Although the film contains explicit and intimate scenes, it does not align with the conventional definition of pornography. The story magnifies the house in a way that constitutes the actual pornographic element. With all its indulgent and conspicuous representations, this excessive portrayal stands out as the most extravagant yet prominent—covering any opportunity to see deeper dynamics of the actual themes and characters in the story.


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