Sunday, November 26, 2023

Cruel Bummer: SALTBURN

After two films, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s signature appears to be staging social satires with only a glancing understanding of society, ending in twists that call into question what in the world the earlier commentary was supposed to be setting up in the first place. Her Promising Young Woman had such a promising premise—a woman vigilante-style shaming male misbehavior—completely sunk by a choppy execution, complete with following up a take-down of systemic prejudice leaning on said system to solve things in its climactic surprises. What? Now here’s Saltburn, a much better movie on the whole, if only because it has more enjoyable surface pleasures of gleaming craftsmanship and gutsy arch performances. But that doesn’t mean it makes the points it thinks It’s making. I’ll get into that later. The movie comes on strong as sensual and prickly, and self-consciously arty with its grainy squared-off images, elliptical cutting, and woozy pop-heavy soundscapes, as it sets up a clear, Brit-focused, dark and dripping class comedy. It grooves on its cruel streak spectacle for a while, as a lower-class university student (Barry Keoghan) is invited to spend vacation at the palatial estate of a rich classmate (Jacob Elordi). A whole host of quirky, pampered, indulgent characters live there—from an icy mother (Rosamund Pike) to a dotty dad (Richard E. Grant), a teasing sister (Alison Oliver), a sassy quip machine family friend (Carey Mulligan), and a butler (Paul Rhys). We see Keoghan’s pathetic character obviously lusting after their privilege as he worms his way into their lives. Usually this sort of class commentary uses the allure of riches to shame the rich for their obliviousness, and/or the poor for coveting such worldly treasures. Here Fennel flips the script, for a movie that ultimately seems to say, gee, the rich sure are eccentric with their hollow parties and conspicuous consumption, but it is the sneaky underclass for which you have to watch out. There’s a reason why that’s not the thrust of these stories. It’s almost a shame, then, that so many seductive shallow thrills are sent in pursuit of such a flawed premise. You can swoon on those surfaces—the shine of the images, the venal bon mots, the performances of charm and charisma, and physical beauty lit like a perfume commercial. Keoghan, especially, finds new fearless ways to put himself on display—never more than his impressively bare final scene that leaves quite an impression. All that can be fun on a moment by moment basis. But it’s all for naught if the foundation on which these enjoyable details are built is so fundamentally cracked.

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