A photograph of a stack of books.

The literary subtleties of Saltburn

After my first encounter with Saltburn, I found myself feeling unfulfilled and entirely disillusioned; the film appeared as a vacuous, inherently superficial romp. After my second encounter with Saltburn, however, I felt a strong appreciation for the film’s magnificent use of intertextuality that shrouds a plethora of literary, cinematic, and historical parallels within the folds of its foreshadowing. Picking up on the reflections of Brideshead Revisited and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I grew to adore Emerald Fennell’s meticulous attention to detail.

One scene that particularly struck me was the sinister Doppelganger scene (if you can’t remember which one this is, think back to the painfully awkward egg scene), in which Venetia tells the story of the sighting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s doppelganger before his death. As she explains how Shelley’s doppelganger was known to have walked past a top-floor window, a figure closely resembling Felix passes by the window behind her, foreshadowing his tragic fate later in the film. Whilst some might label this observation as a stretch, its flawless subtlety seems a little perfect to be coincidental. By playing on the Gothic literary fascination with the doppelganger motif as a harbinger of death, though in a practically unnoticeable detail, Fennell nails the sensitivity demanded when using intertextuality as a vehicle for foreshadowing.

The Gothic notes of Saltburn do not end here, as the arguably most unsettling scene of the film seems to be a reference to Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights. Echoing the scene of the tormented Heathcliff digging up Catherine’s grave to achieve ‘ease’ for his mind, Oliver’s relations with Felix’s grave mirror the desperate attempt to feign a sense of intimacy with someone now physically unattainable. With both scenes testament to the authenticity of the characters’ depraved depths of obsession and desire, the grave scene is just one of the many parallels the film draws between Oliver and Heathcliff.  

Saltburn’s foreshadowing begins to loom larger and larger, almost inescapable and present at every turn as the first murder of the film grows imminent: the birthday party as a visual reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the visual parallels drawn between the hedge mazes of Saltburn and Kubrick’s The Shining and, most overtly, the Minotaur’s presence in Oliver’s costume and the maze’s statue. I’m not a Classics student, but any reference to Greek mythology never fails to capture my attention, and I found Fennell’s incorporation of the Minotaur figure fascinating. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man (an inverted centaur, almost?), compelled to live in an underground labyrinth and fed with human sacrifices. He is known to have been slaughtered by the young Theseus, though not an entirely heroic character as he manipulates the royal family and gains the crown. With Oliver simultaneously posited as the monstrous Minotaur and the manipulative Theseus, a more complex reference to the myth emerges. 

What could be drawn from this ambiguity might be a refutation of the interpretation of Oliver as Saltburn’s Minotaur, despite the Minotaur-esque antlers of Oliver’s costume. What if it is Felix who is the Minotaur, and Oliver the hero who must slay him? As it happens, Oliver does not seem to be properly suitably criticised nor punished, and any character who does seem to pick up on Oliver’s subterfuge is soon dead, leaving him ultimately victorious. The final scene, soundtracked by ‘Murder on the Dance Floor’, also features poses and angles that mirror images of Greek God sculptures, further solidifying his image as a winning champion. In an interview with Dakota Warren, Fennell emphasises the importance of the uncanny, a process which involves the inversion of the familiar to the unfamiliar. Considering this, alongside the convoluted nature of the Minotaur reference, perhaps reveals the importance of subtle details and parallels, leading the film in an entirely different direction.

I feel compelled to retract most of the criticism I voiced towards the film upon my first, surface-level encounter with it. Whether or not the film gains a degree of merit through its subtle depth is entirely up to your film preferences, but I loved rewatching the film and being able to truly dissect its finer details. This is one of those films which must be viewed in a cinema due to the sheer level of concentration it demands, something which is put at stake with the distracted spectatorship we adopt when streaming at home. Ultimately, if you found yourself feeling dissatisfied or unimpressed with Saltburn after your first viewing, try giving it a second, more attentive glance. 

Image credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels