Womansplaining: Is Saltburn a Feminist Film?

TW: EDs and suicide

(Spoilers ahead!)

Labelled the ‘most divisive film of the year’ by The Guardian, the deliciously sultry and luridly provocative Saltburn has enjoyed much discussion this holiday season (not least by us Oxford students clamouring to comment on how (un)realistic the depiction of our beloved university was). A searing erotic thriller evoking equal parts desire and disgust, the lascivious film features the persuasive, depraved middle-class con artist Oliver (Barry Keoghan), who ingratiates himself with a vacuous and dysfunctional blue-blooded family.

I’m not here to debate the merits of the film – whether it was visually stunning (it was), whether the class commentary was done well (it wasn’t), or whether the performative transgression was at times over-the-top (it was) – instead, I want to ask whether Saltburn is a feminist film. Director Emerald Fennell has argued that yes, it is. In a recent interview with TheWrap, she says, ‘I realized that being a female filmmaker is a political act…Therefore, I think that this film is extraordinarily feminist. It exists. Everything I do is feminist because it’s what I live my life by’.

This raises the question: is everything that a feminist does or produces inherently ‘feminist’? This seems inadequate; after all, a self-proclaimed feminist can do or say patently unfeminist things. Moreover, analysing works based on authorial intent has fallen out of fashion in favour of audience response and interpretation. Even if Fennell truly meant for the film to be feminist, this would be irrelevant if the audience disagreed.

So beyond the identity and intentions of the director and writer, is Saltburn itself feminist? (Warning: spoilers ahead). With the main dynamic in the film being the relationship between two male characters, the women seem to be reduced to mere caricatures. Rosumund Pike’s Elspeth, although brilliantly portrayed, is a beautiful, empty-headed, cold matriarch, completely devoid of any maternal instinct: the stereotypical wealthy, vacant housewife. Alison Oliver’s Venetia, on the other hand, is a complicated, lonely and vulnerable character, described by mother Elspeth as a ‘masochist [who] has an eating disorder’. Even though her character may initially seem three-dimensional, it is ultimately still an overused trope of the troubled, angsty female teenager. Hence on the metric of character depth, Saltburn isn’t particularly feminist.

In addition, both aforementioned female characters are completely beguiled and manipulated by Oliver. For Venetia, this first happens in the scene where Oliver goes down on her. Taken out of context, this is probably quite feminist, as on-screen depictions of women receiving head are unfortunately rare. But within this encounter, Oliver is the one with all the power, and he exploits her vulnerability to goad her into taking her own life down the line. As for Elspeth, she is first disarmed by Oliver’s shocking line ‘Because you’re so fucking beautiful’; eventually, she becomes so utterly bewitched that she signs over the entire family estate to him. Even though this might not necessarily be a gendered point, as Oliver did have most of the characters in the palm of his hand, he does use sex and flattery to get his way with the women in the movie.

So overall, Saltburn doesn’t seem like a particularly feminist film. The female characters are mere caricatures and pathetically weak-willed, with Oliver easily gaining the upper hand just by a few carefully-planted words. The only argument I could plausibly make for Saltburn being feminist is all the tantalising close-up shots of Jacob Elordi, and the jaw- (and pant-) dropping last scene  – thank you Fennell. But beyond that, there is nothing remotely feminist about Saltburn.