Considerations about Emerald Fennel's film

I just saw saltburn, a sensational film by British filmmaker Emerald Fennel, a gothic, pop and anarcho-capitalist version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Shakespeare, turned into a comedy of “errors” remixed with a dark and sarcastic Harry Porter.

Oliver, the fabulous protagonist, will move from the aristocratic and snobbish University of Oxford – more noisy and ostentatious than Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – to the heart of a family of ultra-rich caricatures, who naturalize all instincts and desires with lust. and has its own rules of social and sexual conduct with the security and extravagance of those who are part of the 1% of the global elite.

The film is also a kind of anarcho-capitalist version (free market anarchism, jealous of all private privileges), of the disturbing and libertarian film Theorem, by Pasolini, and also brings touches of psychopathology from the fascinating Tom Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, that amoral and criminal character with whom we ineluctably sympathize, even if he destroys our lives and values ​​(as Hitchcock did with his villains).

Tom Ripley is a reference that the director herself explains when talking about the film. Ripley is an increasingly generic and contemporary guy, who rhymes with Milei. A social psychopathy capable of enchanting crowds and voters.

The director produces an immediate complacency and sympathy for Olivier, Barry Keoghan (the actor performs an impressive transformation throughout the film), as we follow his entry into Oxford University as a scholarship student, with his thrift store clothes, shy and intimidated, a commoner, young person from poor or middle class, separated from rich students, intimidated and lost in an unfriendly world of surnames, families and tradition.

If we stopped here we would already have a contemporary tale about the small and large humiliations that come with the discovery of classes and social groups and the effort to adapt to them, to fit in, to sip something of that wealth, to be at least friends with the ultra-handsome colleague , charming and rich. The subdued look of someone who lives with, but is irremediably outside of, sharing the wealth of the worlds.

More saltburn it will not deal with any social awareness, fight against asymmetries and privileges, inequalities and injustice. Because what we see is a character who begins to deeply desire this world. There is no resentment or revolt, but the desire to be someone else, to enjoy all their privileges.

Like Olivier, we are completely dazzled by the scandalous and charming beauty of Félix, the stunning Jacob Elordi, who already has in his name the sign of everything the world sells as happiness and success. Felix is ​​happy, fortunate, with inherited material wealth, with beauty that seduces all genders, a “favorite of the gods”, a kind of hyperbole, far beyond all white, standard and heteronormative privileges.

In fact, an important detail, the English aristocracy in the film, as the global economic elite seems to say, with mockery and commiseration, that normative sexuality is “a thing for the poor” and middle class, after all, hypersexuality, fluidity and sexual mobility are also They are one of the ways to exercise not only freedom, but also power.

The shy and demonetized Oliver soon discovers that his good social manners (“you're so real,” says one of the characters, meaning, you're so “simple”) and his sexual capital are the few things he actually has to offer to anyone. all the family.

Actor Barry Keoghan's performance surprises and holds the film's twists, but it is only like a fable that we see him go, in a short time, from the intimidated and frail boy who submits to the eccentricities of the English family, to a young man who is gaining ground, undressing and seducing by listening, understanding, until arriving at the self-confident Oliver who mocks and manipulates the pain of others, exactly how the Catton family operates.

sexuality in saltburn it is almost a sequence of consenting and complicit rapes. Sex is used to subjugate the young black man, the family's less wealthy cousin, the sarcastic character Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), the only one to suspect that Oliver really and obsessively wants to share in this world of wealth, in which people say what they want. they think to each other without euphemisms, have dinner and play tennis in tuxedos while drinking champagne, in a kind of happy and debauched “savor-faire” acquired with all the privileges of wealth.

 Hacking the transgressions

The scenes of this hypersexuality that permeates all the characters have less to do with a libertarian imaginary and more to do with the exercise of powers, none of the characters limit their enjoyments by social conventions, all possibilities are on the table of the English aristocracy and Oliver quickly learns that sex is power.

Obviously, reviews and criticisms on networks and newspapers about Staltburn just stick to that. “[Film] traumatizes internet users with disturbing pornographic scenes in a bathtub and cemetery”, is just one of the sensationalist calls, reinforcing and valuing cultural products added with a dose of manufactured scandal. Hyper stimuli that sell and engage, new universal business model.

But what do sexual “scandals” and “controversies” really say? At the same time that we see the rise of a conservative and normative extreme right in the world, everything that sells must have something scandalous, libertarian, “perverted”, or non-normative as an activator of imaginaries. Today, extremist ideology itself has appropriated the “transgressions”.

I would even say that the post-1968 libertarian imaginary of counterculture, the parliament of bodies, the fluidity of genders is the playground unconfessed by conservatives. “Protect me from what I want” seems to be the global denial of a certain middle class and ultra-conservatives across the planet. The word freedom and libertarian, on the other hand, also gained conformist contours!

There are no transgressions in the sex scenes of saltburn, we don't see anything scandalous, let's say. Only at the end of the film will the director give a perverse meaning to Oliver's awakened sexuality, as an instrument of social ascension and power. Which, in my opinion, almost ruins the film and betrays the ambiguity of the character, becoming a cliché “psychopath”.

But, of course, the short, staged sex scenes are fully integrated into the plot, which always surprises us. The fairy atmosphere of saltburn, the decor, the costumes, the stunning photography, green illuminated woods, the dark lighting of the sumptuous rooms, the imaginative costumes of the birthday party for Oliver in the Shakespearean summer woods, all of this alleviates any possible behavioral “shock”.

There is no scandal, but the scenes can hurt sensibilities due to the sanitized standard with which sex is represented in cinema, far from real bodily fluids and the practices that the characters allow themselves to perform: sex with a menstruating woman. Oliver ardently drinking the water from the bathtub in which Félix masturbated. Oliver lying naked and rubbing himself in the dirt of Felix's grave.

The sex scenes in the film have much more of a possession and desecration character. Oliver has sex with those he can psychologically dominate: Venetia (Alison Oliver), Félix's sister, a sex addict; cousin Farleigh (Archie Adekwe), a young black man sexually “punished” by Oliver in a homoerotic scene and at the end the scene of intimacy and death of Felix's mother, Elspeth: the wonderful actress Rosamund Pike, her final act of domination of the property , of desecration of bodies and their transmutation.

 The film provokes and mocks the more normative viewer with cultural signs of vampirism, fetishism and morbidity, which could be read as part of the plot and Oliver's personality, as he discovers his only possibility of social ascension and intrusion in that family, through desire and sexuality. .

Oliver loves the world that Felix embodies. There is no love or passion that does not include the desire for the other's world. This is what Proust and Deleuze teach us. And it's very easy to become obsessed with Félix's stunning beauty and the sumptuousness of saltburn.

The film astonishes and fascinates the viewer with its rustling, gothic and pop visuality. It uses the language of the music video in some decisive moments: (i) When Félix stars in a kind of music video of wealth and ostentation, when showing the mansion and its rooms to an intimidated Olivier arriving for summer vacation at the dream property that is Saltburn.

(ii) We also have the comical and embarrassing karaoke in which Oliver realizes that he has been asked to sing “Kayak and SUP rental”, by Pet Shop Boys: “The currency we've spent \ I love you, you pay my rent” (rhyming spelt, spend on annuity, rent): I love you, you pay my rent).

(iii) And in the sumptuous final clip in which Oliver choreographs his triumph in saltburn, passing through the mansion's rooms, celebrating his possessions and his naked body, when he usurps the place and becomes Félix himself, dancing through the halls to the sound of the music “Murder on the Dancefloor”, by Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

(iv) Oliver is Felix. We return to the proverbial character Ripley: “I always thought it would be better to be a fake someone than a real nobody.” In this case, in fact, Oliver takes possession of Félix and his world.

This is the dancing anarcho-capitalist fable. This is the triumph of “getting there” sold by all contemporary success and prosperity coaches. Fairy, sarcastic, the film is much more scandalous for that reason. Oliver transmuted, liberation from the unconscious flooded by a sinister joy of possession and ownership.

Oh, but did you like the movie? Yes, the film is fascinating because it deals with contemporary imaginaries, contradictory and disturbing feelings, actions that seduce us or produce aversion, confronting our values. Like or dislike means little compared to the task we have today of understanding, analyzing, perceiving and transforming the state of things.

*Ivana Bentes She is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Media-Crowd: communication aesthetics and biopolitics (Mauad X). []


USA, UK, 2023, 127 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Emerald Fennel
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Alison Oliver, Archie Adekwe, Rosamund Pike.

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