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The Sons and Daughters of Tom Ripley

The main character of Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’ is cast in the mold of Matt Damon’s disturbing shape-shifter in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ He’s just the latest in a long, sad line of social strivers. 

Paramount Pictures/A24/20th Century Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The story of class struggle—of the less fortunate aspiring to a higher social rank—is an old and evergreen one. With her latest film, Saltburn, English actress and filmmaker Emerald Fennell gives her own take on that everlasting tale, from a particularly privileged perspective: her 18th birthday was the subject of an article in Tatler, a magazine aimed at the British upper class, back in 2003. Fennell also openly makes references to one of the greatest films of the genre. Anthony Minghella’s 1999 picture, The Talented Mr. Ripley, casts a long shadow on films about social mobility and on cinema at large, with the exciting mix of desire, catharsis, contempt, and terror it renders. Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick in Saltburn is the Tom Ripley of 2006, scheming in England rather than Italy, and although his quest is even more cynical and calculated than Tom’s, he too aspires to more beauty and wealth at any price. Like Tom, he feels a mixture of love and hatred toward a richer, more attractive, and much more popular young man, his Oxford University classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, with an accent so ridiculous I thought it was a bad attempt at sounding posh before being informed that there are real people who do speak this way), and works hard to get closer to him. But Saltburn is only one film in a long lineage of Ripley-esque movies. By offering different angles and accentuating particular aspects of this impossible relationship between the 1 percent and the rest of us, these films expand far beyond questions of wealth and power and toward more existential realms, asking us to think differently about what Western society tells us is the ultimate goal of any citizen.

Even before Patricia Highsmith published The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, stories of people desperate to break the glass ceiling were very popular. A Place in the Sun, the celebrated 1951 film directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift as a working-class man turning to murder to get with the beautiful and wealthy Angela (Elizabeth Taylor), is itself based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which in turn was inspired by a real murder. The success of Minghella’s film stems from what it shares with that earlier film: As despicable as Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley and Clift’s George Eastman may be, they are also endearing; their pain is touching. It’s hard not to relate to their desire for more. Those stories have maintained their appeal over the years because they reveal the pit of longing and despair that lives inside many of us who haven’t been lucky to be born with a silver spoon in our mouths and have to struggle for what we want. Perhaps not coincidentally, two years before playing golden boy Dickie Greenleaf in Ripley, Jude Law starred in Andrew Niccol’s dystopian space drama Gattaca as a “genetically superior” man offering his DNA to Ethan Hawke’s Vincent, an “in-valid,” in order to allow Vincent to realize his dream of going on a deep space mission. Vincent grew up always feeling lesser than his brother Anton, who was conceived through genetic selection, and now has to live a lie and always look over his shoulder. When his secret is discovered, Vincent insists that he got where he is all on his own, through his own perseverance and hard work. He’s both right and wrong.

What true fans of Ripley will tell you, however, is that what Tom suffered from wasn’t so much his economic position but the loneliness that came with it. Rejected by society at large for their social rank, Tom and the characters walking in his footsteps have grown to feel inferior and struggle to find a meaning to their lives beyond the daily grind to subsist. As a result, Tom’s identity is terrifyingly and depressingly plastic—he can adapt to his interlocutor to better ingratiate himself to them, taking on their values and morals as necessary. Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid in Matt Spicer’s 2017 comedy-drama Ingrid Goes West operates in a similar way. Evidently very lonely, she continuously develops obsessions with blond and seemingly wealthy social media influencers she finds on Instagram and tries to become their real-life friend through manipulation and lies. She also strives to become them, adopting their hairstyles, fashions, and language. Her road trip to Joshua Tree with Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) looks a lot like Tom’s getaway to jazz bars with Dickie, and like Tom, Ingrid barely says anything to her idol. Instead, she lets Taylor do all the talking and simply drinks in her energy, fascinated and grateful to be on the receiving end of what is really nothing more than the self-involved ravings of a deeply privileged person who chooses friends like I pick socks in the morning. Ingrid’s replies are variations on “totally!” and “awesome!” but constitute enough participation for Taylor to finally tell her that she’s her favorite person ever. What more could anyone possibly want?

Although not much is known about Ingrid’s past, we do find out that her mother, whom she considered her best friend, recently had passed away after a long illness. In that difficult time, social media gave Ingrid a window into better lives, where love and happiness looked easy and abundant, and she wanted in. Similarly, in her novel, Highsmith explains that Tom lost his parents at a young age and was raised by his mean aunt (this information isn’t given in Minghella’s film). The absence of familial love is a common thread for these social climbers. In François Ozon’s 2012 film, In the House, 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is the only student able to string more than two sentences together when literature teacher Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini) asks his pupils for personal essays. Exasperated by the degrading level of literacy of the phone-addicted French youth, Monsieur Germain holds on to Claude and encourages him to develop his writing beyond clichés and facile twists, so Claude continues to write about his wealthier classmate Raphael Artole (Bastien Ughetto), becoming his friend and regularly visiting him at home. What becomes clear through Claude’s elegant turns of phrase and intelligent metaphors is his envy toward Raphael’s seemingly idyllic family life. In their cute little house, the Artole family is close-knit, loving, and playful, and welcoming toward their son’s new friend. Progressively, however, the line between reality and fiction blurs in Claude’s essays, and it becomes harder for M. Germain to discern whether he’s fueled his student’s imagination or his manipulative and psychopathic tendencies (in a fun and apt reference, M. Germain and his wife at one point go to the cinema to see Match Point, a movie that’s also about a man infiltrating a richer family). Since this is an Ozon film, the boundaries of social norms are pushed even further and Claude develops (or claims to develop) an affair with Raphael’s mother, an expression of his Oedipus complex and longing for affection. “It’s not me you love. It’s an image. An image in your head,” she eventually tells him. Like Ingrid scrolling Instagram, it’s only in fiction and the beautiful images in his mind that Claude can get all he desires.

When Steven Spielberg decided to tell the story of a con man, he had to bring his usual interest in the family unit into it. 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, like In the House, is very much about storytelling—not only does Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) manipulate people with made-up tales, but the entire saga of the real man’s long con has since been contested, and it’s likely that he wildly exaggerated the extent of his international schemes. Nevertheless, Spielberg detected in Abagnale’s tale of fake identities and high-level fraud a profound lack that Abagnale was trying to fill. As in his more recent and autobiographical The Fabelmans, what tortures the protagonist of Catch Me If You Can is the falling apart of his parents’ marriage, and his knowledge of his mother’s infidelity. Repeatedly throughout the film, Frank Jr. interrupts his escapades to meet with his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), and show him how well he’s doing for himself. He offers him presents that he hopes his father could use to impress his now-ex-wife and make her come back to them. This will never happen, and Frank Jr. eventually realizes that his father’s sweet talking and fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude have been both of their downfalls. The fantasies he made other people believe in in order to believe them himself remained just that: fables.

If we can all relate to this kind of extreme daydreaming about a high-flying life, we can also understand the con men who get as much as they can from the rich as a means of revenge or evening the scales (an element that plays into Oliver’s schemes in Saltburn). Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 hit, Parasite, paints a cathartic and terrifying picture of what class disparity can lead to—it was in fact inspired by the ghastly real story of Christine and Léa Papin, two French housemaid sisters who savagely enucleated and murdered their mistress and her daughter one night in 1933 after one too many insults from the entitled rich woman. In Parasite, each member of the Kim family infiltrates the lives of the Parks, getting various service jobs in their beautiful house. Again, the family unit is central, and storytelling allows them to maintain their cover, but there is none of the admiration that Tom has for Dickie: the Kims actively hate their employers, and as soon as the Parks leave for a camping trip, the occupiers revel in the luxuries of this privileged life now within their reach. But what Parasite also highlights is how the fight for the upper echelon can turn the less fortunate against each other. The Kims’ plan falls apart when it is discovered by the Parks’ former housemaid, herself deceitful, and ends in a bloodbath when Mr. Park expresses his disgust for the smell of the people he employs. Above all else, class disparity is dehumanizing—an idea that, in the previous year, another South Korean filmmaker expressed less literally. Lee Chang-dong’s disturbing thriller Burning follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young struggling writer who grows increasingly suspicious of Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy guy who may or may not have kidnapped or killed Jong-su’s childhood friend and sort-of lover Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Ben remains opaque, and his Mona Lisa smile disturbs Jong-su. The director gives a dark, morbid quality to every sign of wealth that Ben displays, from his car to his apartment and his clothes, making us share in Jong-su’s growing terror. But is Ben really dangerous, or has Jong-su made him the scapegoat for all his feelings of inadequacy, on a financial and romantic level? Ben’s economic superiority has brought out the worst in Jong-su.

Wealth can also bring out the worst in those who have it, of course, and some films have flipped the script on the Ripley story to better show the vacuity of a life of unlimited power and pitch-perfect appearances. Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine follows Manhattan socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, who also played a member of the upper class in Ripley) after she’s lost everything and suffered a nervous breakdown. Divorced and destitute, Jasmine has to move in with her much less wealthy sister in San Francisco, and through a series of flashbacks, we begin to understand what happened. Jasmine (real name Jeanette) has lived and continues to live in a state of denial: When she was married to finance manager Hal (Alec Baldwin) and dividing her time between brunches and shopping, she was conveniently ignoring her husband’s illegal dealings, like a mafia wife accepting each new fur coat without a question. Now that her life has fallen apart, she refuses to accept her new reality and lies to a new rich beau with the aim of getting herself a new wealthy husband. But the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear: Jasmine talks to herself, hurts everyone around her, and ends up alone. Finally, we learn that Jasmine’s one moment of honesty was the thing that brought on all this misery: After years of looking the other way when Hal would cheat on her, she called the FBI on him in a rage. Extreme wealth and sincerity just don’t seem to go well together.

Jasmine’s detachment from truth and real life finds its echo in Cory Finley’s 2017 film, Thoroughbreds, in which wealthy teenager Amanda (Olivia Cooke) feels no emotions whatsoever and struggles to connect with anyone. Her mother ends up paying another young girl, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), to spend time with Amanda, and soon enough the endlessly bored girl convinces Lily that they should kill Lily’s stepfather. Finley never states it plainly, but it becomes apparent that Amanda’s lack of morals or care goes hand in hand with her financial situation: When you can have anything you want, what are values worth? Like Jasmine, Amanda can do without feelings when they don’t serve her, and throughout the film, it becomes harder to discern whether she truly doesn’t have emotions or has never learned to access them. On the other side of the Ripley story, Amanda looks just as lonely as Tom, and like him, she’s suffered from not getting the attention we all deserve. The detachment that wealth often creates can break a family apart, too.

The love of her family is all that Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) ever wanted in David Fincher’s 2014 film Gone Girl—both the love of her original family, and of the one she created with her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). But her upper-class parents used her and preferred the successful children’s book character she inspired, Amazing Amy, to their real-life daughter, and Nick, after seeming like the perfect guy, cheated on her with one of his young students. The fantasy of a perfect life crumbles, and Amy grows tired of playing the role of the “cool girl,” per her famous monologue: “Nick and Amy would be gone; but then, we never really existed.”

In Gattaca, we eventually learn that the reason Jude Law’s genetically superior character is in a wheelchair isn’t due to an accident; he’d grown tired of everyone’s high expectations of him and threw himself at a passing car. In Gone Girl, the burden of Amy’s supposed amazingness has weighed on her for far too long. Amy is Tom Ripley if he’d succeeded in pretending to be the perfect wealthy bachelor, had somehow married Dickie, and then discovered that Dickie was cheating on him and decided to exact his revenge. By being treated like a character in a story rather than a human being, Amy for a time saw herself that way too, learning all the rules of behavior to hopefully arrive at something like happiness. Once reality comes crashing into her life, she uses her skills to fool public perception into believing that she is a victim of a disappearance. Like Ingrid in Ingrid Goes West, she knows that appearances count for almost everything, and like Claude in In the House, she can weave a story that ends with her getting what she wants. She had planned to kill herself and send Nick to jail but changes her mind when, finally, Nick himself performs the role of the loving husband perfectly on television. All she wants is for him to say all the right words, even if he doesn’t really mean them. Where Jasmine couldn’t reconcile the truth with what she believed in, Amy can accept living a lie if it means winning her husband’s never-ending (forced) loyalty and her parents’ attention. It is precisely the fragility of the upper-class fantasy—the fantasy of total fulfillment—that gives it its power and makes everyone, rich and poor, fight for it and wonder, like Nick Dunne does, “What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.