Saltburn is all vibes and no substance
The most controversial film of the past year is a succession of outlandish provocations that refuses to say anything.
Saltburn is certainly confounding critics. ‘Is Saltburn the most divisive film of the year?’, asks the Guardian. The staff of Vulture can’t decide whether they like it or not. The Times can’t tell if it is snobby trash or superb satire.
What is it about director Emerald Fennell’s second, BAFTA-long-listed film that is making life so difficult for the reviewers?
Saltburn’s premise seems clear enough. It features Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi as Oxford students Oliver Quick and Felix Catton respectively. At university in 2006, the awkward outcast Quick becomes fixated with the suave, aristocratic Catton’s popularity, wealth and charisma. Quick finagles himself into Catton’s social circle and family, destroying the family in the process. It is a garish, intermittently funny, well-cast and well-made film.
Yet critics are struggling to get a grip on what exactly this film means. As a cinematic experience, Saltburn is disorientating. It resists a satisfying reading as satire. How can a film with so many references to Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley say so little about class, or reveal so little about envy? And what is the meaning of the film’s now notorious, and grotesquely over-the-top, set pieces?
Saltburn is deeply elusive. It is sustained by atmosphere, sensation and ludicrous provocations, from grave-shagging to period-eating. It is, as several critics have noted, a film without coherence. A film that seems to generate real yet seemingly baseless emotional effects. A film, above all, of ‘vibes’.
This notion of vibes is crucial to understanding Saltburn. It is why the New York Times’ critic notes the film’s incoherence yet still enjoys the sensations it evokes. To get to grips with the idea of vibes, it is helpful to clarify the technical meaning of story, plot and narrative.
Story is the central theme of a film, its content. Most films, especially those emanating from Hollywood, actually tell the same story. They are typically about psychological transformation, about a person overcoming obstacles to become a better version of themselves. This simple foundation of so much cinema – the ‘Hero’s Journey’ – is so embedded that we are often blind to it.
Plot refers to the events depicted to illustrate and tell the story. And narrative is how the plot is assembled and delivered. Narrative includes properties such as editing, performance, genre and cinematography, among many other things.
What is interesting about Saltburn is that it has no story. It has no shortage of plot, as the film proceeds from one histrionic climax to another. And it has a narrative, told in flashbacks by an unreliable narrator. But it has no story. No real, cohering theme. No character development. No one emerges at the end of the narrative psychologically transformed for the better (or worse). Oliver Quick starts the film as a psycho and ends it as a psycho.
For this reason, it is hard to interpret Saltburn’s many provocations. To be truly provoked by something a character does, we need access to his inner life, his story. But the film withholds Quick’s inner life. We don’t see his journey, if indeed he is on one at all. We don’t share in his story. So when Quick slurps semen-infused bathwater from a plughole, we cannot see anything other than a beautifully lit close-up of him doing something freaky. Provocative? That’s up to you. Vibey? Absolutely.
Why is Saltburn like this? And why are other films increasingly vibey, too? Barbie is a vibes-driven film whose actual story – perhaps accidentally – is really about Ken. Some critics are disappointed that Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (also starring Jacob Elordi, as Elvis) offers pure ‘Graceland vibes’ and is not an undergraduate feminist essay on the exploitation of Priscilla Presley.
Film, as a mass cultural product, is increasingly called on to fulfill ethical obligations. It is asked to be a tool for social good. A tool to educate us. Producers of film and TV are repeatedly told that ‘representation matters’, that they need to ‘change the narrative’, that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. Films are now called upon to promote diversity and other elite values. Indeed, the Academy recently instituted new ‘inclusion standards’ that films have to meet if they’re to be eligible for Oscar consideration.
Filmmakers may well agree with these imperatives to a greater or lesser extent – it would be surprising if they did not. But they will, on some level, experience these demands as constraints on their art form, as an imposition, a drag on creativity. This is where vibes come in.
Creating films consisting of vibes and free of story may well be a spontaneous, incoherent attempt by filmmakers to work around the externally imposed constraints on their art. That is, the more they’re told what stories to tell, what stories are politically correct, the more they stop engaging with storytelling at all. The result is that they elevate the creation of vibes over story.
Vibes are neither consciously woke nor anti-woke. They are not a tool in a culture war. They are best understood as an unconscious attempt by artists to re-assert the primacy of their art and its emotional core. Before anything else, film is supposed to make us feel.
So expect to see more vibey films, and make your peace with them now. You might then enjoy the peculiarities that Saltburn has to offer.
Maren Thom and Alex Dale are hosts of the podcast, Performance Anxiety.
Watch the trailer for Saltburn here:
Picture by: YouTube.
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