After an hour, it all went sideways, with Oliver revealed to be a great deal less naïve than he presented himself as. He’s just a mess. But the halo of “Brideshead Revisited” remained. It’s an essentially theological book about beauty, desire and conversion, written by Waugh in the wake of hardship and containing a thickly slathered nostalgia for the ways of the fading aristocracy in the years surrounding the world wars. Fennell, meanwhile, has said that she set “Saltburn” in 2006-07 to “undercut the glamour,” and there’s very little admiration for the posh settings in the film. For the most part, they’re seen as almost vulgar, indexes of taste without the taste behind them. Whereas Charles Ryder, the Oliver character in “Brideshead,” is attracted to the beauty, history and transcendence of the great house and the broken family that inhabits it, and finds there some grander eternal consequence, Oliver is working from a more base instinct: the acquisitive need to have what he feels he’s been denied in his own family’s boring, moral, middle-class existence.
In other words, Oliver is just as vulgar as all of them. The movie makes no indication (as some disgruntled viewers suggested) that he’s meant to represent a whole class of people bent on stealing from the rich. He’s just the inversion of a more innocent literary prototype, one whom readers and viewers see as their own emissary into the glamorous world of the great house. This is a movie, in essence, about these kinds of movies.
In an interview, Fennell said that “Saltburn” is “a satire about our fixation with films like this” — hence the imperious strains of “Zadok the Priest” right from the start. To satirize a genre is, by definition, to exaggerate and poke fun at its trappings. The aim is to show how ridiculous the genre is in the first place. So we have our Oliver, who goes beyond the simple beauty-besotted poor kid of other tales to actually just be boring, predictable, craven, the worst. Like the scariest sort of villains, he doesn’t even really have much of a reason to be this way, other than he wants to. We too have Felix’s relatives, who all think of themselves as very generous and posh and are actually sociopathically self-involved, hermetically sealed in their estate. The house is still grand, with its fountains and ceramics and cocktails and hedge maze, but the people in it are small-minded and weird and maybe a little more human than their predecessors in the genre.
That Oliver, in the end, turns out to be a bad and conniving freak is both obvious from the start and a way of sticking a thumb in the eye of the genre. He learns no lessons, reaches no conclusions, attains no heights of spiritual transformation. But he’s also not a genius con artist; at times, he’s kind of an idiot and certainly pitiable. Instead of experiencing awe or desire or even nostalgia for the manor he makes himself lord of, we realize how silly this whole thing is. It’s not a movie about class. It’s a movie about foolishness — his, and ours.
Others have done this, of course, in different ways; the whole “Knives Out” franchise, for instance, is playing with similar ideas, probably with a little more skill. But the fun of “Saltburn” is that Fennell wraps the big mess in a candy coating, and the result is a bit like Skittles, after the packet has been left in the sun: some have melted together, everything tainted by the taste of plastic.
This satire won’t end the genre because the genre has sort of ended itself, but “Saltburn” is plenty happy to kick the ruins around, throw back half a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and then sneer and flip you the bird. We know by now that it’s not for everyone. But I sure had a blast. As for you, to borrow another phrase from the meme-making youths: Your mileage may vary.