Saltburn has the slick intrigue of a Gothic thriller and the icy wit of a comedy of manners. The eponymous estate at which bookish University of Oxford loner Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) works to ingratiate himself is a museum of decadence, its splendor concealing a depravity that only the wealthy can disregard. But the movie’s target isn’t straightforward. Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the bewitching classmate who invites Oliver home with him for a rambling summer, starts out as a token of desire but becomes a heedless lodestar. Felix inherited his savior complex from his mother, Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), a wannabe do-gooder with a vampy cruel streak. She’s married to a daffy lord (played by Richard E. Grant) whose lack of self-awareness rivals her own. As for Oliver, he spends his days at Saltburn currying favor among the Cattons, only to enact extravagant subterfuge.
Emerald Fennell, the writer and director of Saltburn, calls it a “vampire movie.” Oliver is the ultimate bloodsucker in question, yet his drive remains a sympathetic one. He wants what everyone wants: to belong. When Felix embraces Oliver, who talks of drug-addicted parents and a life without spoils, Oliver quickly leeches on to the most popular guy at school. Can you blame him? Grandeur is an aphrodisiac.
“It’s the same as constructing any love story. I mean, it is a love story,” Fennell tells The Ringer. “Can you completely believe why these two people would come together?”
Part of the seduction scheme that eventually leads Oliver to acquire Saltburn involves sex—the sex he witnesses, the sex he wants, the sex he initiates. If he has something to gain beyond corporeal pleasure, nothing is off-limits. That includes semen-streaked bathwater, menstrual blood, and grave fucking. With the movie hitting theaters, Fennell and Keoghan walked The Ringer through Saltburn’s three outré sex scenes, the ones meant to shock and titillate in near-equal measure.
For the movie’s first kink to land, Fennell had to plant a few crucial seeds. Casting the right Felix was the first. Keoghan is well-known for playing shifty oddballs like Oliver (see: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Green Knight, The Banshees of Inisherin), but Felix is all about surface-level élan. Fennell needed an actor with a magnetism that leaps off the screen, someone so striking his mere presence can melt hearts—not unlike Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman, her 2020 directorial debut. Felix, whom Fennell compares to Brideshead Revisited aristocrat Sebastian Flyte, doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond beauty, charm, and money.
Fennell was pleased to discover that Elordi, the Euphoria and Priscilla heartthrob, shared her take on the character. “Felix does something shitty in every scene,” Fennell says. “He’s casually misogynistic, he’s fickle, he’s snobbish. I was always saying to Jacob, ‘He’s not a good kisser. He’s not good in bed. He’s never had to be.’ When Jacob came in to audition, he [played Felix as] kind of a dope. The thing that’s important is that so much of what makes him interesting is Oliver looking at him.”
Oliver certainly can’t stop looking, first through a dormitory window where he watches Felix holding court amid a tribe of admirers. Felix’s poise screams privilege, which immediately beguiles Oliver. When he watches through another window at night while Felix has sex with a young woman, it’s blissfully unclear whether Oliver would rather swap places with Felix or the girl. (For whatever it’s worth, Fennell says Oliver is “absolutely bisexual.”) By the time he enters Saltburn’s imperial gates, he’s completely enthralled, only seldom betraying his underlying desperation. After growing acquainted with the family and their ostentatious house, which Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) sought to shoot “like a fetish object,” he spies Felix masturbating during a bath.
The camera, mirroring Oliver’s eyes, lingers on Felix’s long torso and aroused face. But it’s what follows this voyeurism that’s most erotic. When Felix leaves the bathroom, Oliver slinks into the tub and guzzles the last of the ejaculate water as it drains, as if he’s harvesting Felix’s fluids and social status at once.
“The moment where he rubs his face along the plughole and wants to be in it, it’s sort of like, ‘I want to feel it, I want it to be part of me, I want it to change me,’” Keoghan says. “It’s a total obsession. He’s confused and lost. I don’t think he knows what he’s actually chasing.”
Keoghan says he channeled some combination of fox and snake while descending into the tub, and the sound team blended his slurp with the effects of raw octopus sliding against oil. Oliver’s animalistic excess was one of the first images Fennell thought of while brainstorming Saltburn. “It’s the impulse,” she says. “The moment he does that, it imbues him with this kind of wicked power. It also just felt, to me, so profoundly true of vulnerability, desire, and class envy: All of us can only ever really hope to lick the bottom of a bathtub. So there’s something pathetic, funny, incredibly sexy, and incredibly real.”
As the summer continues and his stature among the Cattons swells, Oliver starts to see everyone as a potential dupe. If he can embed himself in the fabric of Saltburn, maybe he’ll never have to leave. He gives Felix’s catty American cousin (Archie Madekwe) a hand job as a sort of vengeful come-on after the cousin embarrasses Oliver at a dinner party. He even flirts with Elspeth, attempting to appeal to her affinity for waifs. She sees him as a sapling to protect, so Oliver then directs his persuasions to Felix’s troubled sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), seizing on her fragility. As a self-conscious idler with an eating disorder, she’s anxious to find esteem within a family where Felix is the star.
Aware that she’s uncomfortable in her own body, Oliver uses lusting after Venetia as his ace card. Late one night, when he spots her stalking the garden, Oliver pounces. He treats her like a delicious talisman, fingering her on the fog-soaked lawn and smearing her menstrual blood across both of their faces. This act of demented flattery confirms Oliver’s mounting sense of power. Look at how far I’ll go for you.
“So much of the dom-sub thing is about taking care of the person,” Fennell says. “We see him giving people what they want, and that’s just being a good acolyte. What turns him on … is having control of the situation.”
Keoghan takes that sentiment a step further. “He’s abusing her, and he’s a master manipulator,” he says. “He wants to see how far he can take it: ‘I own you. You’re going to do what I say.’ He knows he wouldn’t get away with that with Felix.”
Oliver’s quest to become an honorary Catton falls apart when Felix arranges to take him home to visit his parents on his birthday. Discovering that Oliver is nowhere near as Dickensian as he’s led on, Felix sours on his summer guest, sending Oliver into a spiral. If he can’t worm his way into Saltburn by feigning victimhood, he’ll go for the second-best option: killing the Cattons one by one and taking the whole thing for himself. Anything to avoid feeling once again like an outcast.
After poisoning Felix’s champagne during a blowout party, Oliver enacts a final act of longing: He leaves the funeral to return to the cemetery, pulls down his pants, and fucks the dude’s gravesite. For Fennell, the gesture is more about grief than sex—a visceral version of Heathcliff digging up Catherine’s body at the end of Wuthering Heights. It’s his last chance to touch Felix. Oliver can never have him back, and although he tells himself he wasn’t in love, the intensity of his sobs suggests otherwise.
Initially, Fennell imagined Keoghan rubbing his face in the grave and fondling the dirt, blending the bathtub scene and the garden scene into one showstopping desecration. But upon discussing it with the actor, they decided to be less coy. “I wanted to see what the next step was,” Keoghan says of Oliver’s farewell to Felix. “It wasn’t to get a wow factor. It was quite sad, because he’s lost at that moment.” Keoghan requested a closed set, meaning only essential people like Fennell and Sandgren were present. Shot from behind, he did the deed in one take, hoping to avoid the “sheer embarrassment” of needing to repeat it.
With the Catton clan eventually gone, Oliver is alone at Saltburn, having convinced Elspeth to will the property to him. He can dance naked through the house’s halls all he wants, but Oliver’s victory is hollow. After the movie fades to black, he’ll be left without companionship or a clear purpose. What was it all for? “I’ve always believed that what he wanted was very simple, which was just to be there with [the Cattons],” Fennell says. “The framing narrative makes it seem like he was always in pursuit of this specific end goal, but what he’s most interested in, even if he doesn’t know it himself, is the game of power. That’s why he’s interested in Felix from the beginning. It’s not just that he’s beautiful. It’s that he’s in the middle. … That’s what Oliver’s preoccupation is: with being special. And aren’t we all preoccupied with being special?”
Matthew Jacobs is an Austin-based entertainment journalist who covers film and television. His work can be found at Vulture, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, HuffPost, and beyond. Follow him on X @majacobs.