Barry Keoghan kneels in a bathtub in 'Saltburn'

The Key To Enjoying ‘Saltburn’ Lies at the Bottom of a Bathtub

It’s been two months since my first viewing of Saltburn, and in that time two things have happened: Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman has become one of the most divisive films of the year, and I can’t stop thinking about a particularly deviant scene involving a bathtub. I’m not entirely sure the two things are unrelated.

Recommended Videos

Set in 2006, Fennell’s latest centers on Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), who wins a scholarship to prestigious Oxford University and forms an unlikely friendship with the wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When Felix invites the underprivileged Oliver to his family’s estate—the eponymous Saltburn—for the summer break, Oliver’s fascination with Felix becomes increasingly prurient and transgressive. This is captured in four salacious scenes (well, three are salacious and one is sort of thumbing its nose at salaciousness) that serve two functions: First, the escalation of Oliver’s deviancy can be traced through each of these scenes, which ostensibly undress the character and his motives.

They also function as a litmus test; the extent to which you enjoy Saltburn largely depends on how much you enjoy watching these moments.

The first and arguably most crucial of these is the bathtub scene. Oliver spies Felix masturbating in a clawfoot bathtub in their shared bathroom suite. Felix ejaculates and exits the tub, leaving the water to drain as Oliver slinks into the room. He steps into the tub, kneels down, and begins lapping up the remnant mixture of Felix’s bathwater and semen. The second Oliver steps into the tub, I found myself silently rooting for him to do exactly that. It’s the same feeling I had watching Call Me By Your Name, when Elio masturbates—to completion—with a peach. Later, the Oliver of that film finds the peach, glistening with ejaculate, and for a brief, anxious moment, it seems as if he’ll take a bite. He doesn’t. It’s the thematically correct choice for Luca Guadagnino’s film, a story about longing and devastating desire. Though it may seem like it at first, Saltburn is not about desire; it’s about having, consuming, and becoming—so this Oliver licks it right up. You are what you eat, after all.

Oliver isn’t acting on compulsion (though some viewers may recognize the shape of their own intrusive thoughts in his actions), but instead indulging his most depraved impulses. As we learn the truth about Oliver—he comes from a regular upper-middle-class family with parents who are still married and who give a heartfelt shit about their son—his presumed motives become less clear. In the second of Saltburn‘s salacious scenes, Oliver encounters Felix’s sister Venetia, who’s made a habit of lingering in the courtyard under Oliver’s window. When their flirtation turns to heavy petting, Venetia announces that she’s menstruating, and Oliver performs oral sex on her anyway. Fennell doesn’t cut there, instead allowing the audience to see Ventia’s pleasure as well as Oliver’s blood-streaked grin, the precursor to Venetia’s unraveling.

Fennell continues her almost edgelordian provocations in the third scene, in which Oliver visits the grave of a recently deceased Felix. He digs a hole in the fresh dirt, unzips his pants, and proceeds to have sex with the burial mound.

Jacob Elordi eats a popsicle while reading 'Harry Potter' in 'Saltburn'

The Talented Mr. Ripley and Brideshead Revisited are apparent influences on Saltburn, but comparisons to those stories feel somewhat superficial and may set up expectations that Fennell’s film clearly isn’t interested in meeting. Why does Oliver cry at Felix’s grave? Why does he drink the dirty bathwater? The answer seems to be that there is no answer at all, a common criticism in negative reviews of Saltburn, several of which deride the film for inscrutable messaging and a lack of biting class commentary. Rather than seeming sloppy or careless, these elements feel intentional to me. Oliver has more in common with a Bret Easton Ellis psychopath than he does with Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, yet he isn’t so narcissistic as to actually care about wealth and its trappings. At his most vulnerable—either the approximation of vulnerability he chooses to display or when he gets so shit-faced that he can’t help but confront Felix—Oliver is a Leopold looking for his Loeb.

And there is class commentary in Saltburn, it’s just that the classes are not so disparate. Felix has everything: he’s hot, tall, rich, and every girl is eager to have sex with him. He can even pull off an eyebrow piercing. What Oliver has isn’t nothing, exactly. But it’s not enough to put him on equal footing with Felix, which is why he constructs a fictional backstory of abandonment and dysfunction—the sort of thing rich people who fancy themselves well-meaning and charitable love to fetishize; the sort of thing they lap up like Oliver going to town at the bottom of a bathtub.

When we finally meet his parents, the movie makes it clear that this is not about the haves and the have-nots. It’s about the haves and the could-haves, with varying degrees of privilege separating the two. Oliver is the epitome of quintessential white male privilege, the kind of privilege we see obnoxiously squandered and misappropriated every day. He could be something, but Oliver’s ambitions are driven not by his ego, but by his id.

Which brings us to Saltburn‘s final scene—the fourth in a series of scenes pertaining to the divisiveness of the film. Having outlived Felix, Venetia, and their parents, and successfully positioning himself as inheritor, the estate of Saltburn now belongs to Oliver. He celebrates by dancing through the mansion—fully nude—to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” in an extended sequence that makes Oliver’s undressing literal. Here he is, completely naked for the world to see. After peeling away all those sticky layers, what is there? Nothing, really.

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) smoking a cigarette by the lake in 'Saltburn'.

With minimal effort and some frivolous conniving, Oliver has acquired the Catton family’s fortune and their enviable estate. And he’s done so despite lacking the vast resources afforded by Felix’s wealth and privilege (which extends to his conventional attractiveness). What Fennell keenly observes is the inherent privilege of being born white and male, and the grotesque ease with which someone like Oliver, from a slightly lower class, can acquire more privilege. The senselessness of it—and of Keoghan’s unselfconscious nudity—is comical.

Yes, it’s hollow. But that’s also the point. Oliver’s victory means nothing to us beyond a general desire to see the one percent obliterated. He doesn’t even know what to do with that storied estate and all those riches. Like many in the middle-class, Oliver just wants because he is supposed to want. His own privilege is wasted on him, so it’s not as if obtaining more of it will have some progressive effect. The conclusion of Saltburn is inevitably frustrating, yet there is something undeniably entertaining about watching Keoghan’s psychotic little scamp defile every inch of the Cattons’ gilded mansion by dancing from one room to the next with his dick out.

That’s privilege, baby.

(featured image: MGM)

The Mary Sue is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy
Image of Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.