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February 13, 2024

Billie Miró Breskin

It's been days, and I can’t stop thinking about Saltburn. No, not the movie (though I’ve thought quite a lot about that too), but about the titular house itself. The grand estate is as much a character in director/writer Emerald Fennell’s provoking film as any of its many stars. Its presence is heightened by its unfamiliarity; the property (actually called Drayton House) has never been shown on film before. The audience’s feeling of discovery mirrors that of the main character, Oliver Quick, when he arrives at Saltburn nearly a third of the way through the movie. 


Set across 2006 and 2007, Saltburn follows Oliver (played by Barry Keoghan), a socially inept, sartorially out of step Oxford student with a grim backstory as he becomes enamored by his rich, titled, beautiful classmate, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). At the end of their school year, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at Saltburn, the family estate. It’s an offer that Oliver can’t refuse. 


As the plot spirals through shocking twists, the film’s design plays a consistently excellent supporting role. With production design by Suzie Davies and costume design by Sophie Canale, each poster, tile, and t-shirt not only are intentional, they feel intentional. The burnished academia of Oxford and lush, eclectic aura of Saltburn are pockmarked by the now-cringeworthy ephemera of the noughties. That marring of aesthetic appeal and repulsion is precisely why Fennell decided to set the film in that era. In an interview with GQ with GQ, she explained that “Fifteen years ago, wherever you are in time, is kind of lame, you know: everyone looks dated, but not cool. It’s not ironic yet.” The strong sense of place and time keeps the audience at bay, a constant, subtle reminder of the problems with wishing to emulate any of the film’s characters. 


I wouldn’t go so far to characterize Saltburn as purely a class critique, but it certainly explores those themes, particularly through costuming. When scholarship student Oliver first walks through the gates to his college at Oxford, he is met with a snide “nice coat” from Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), cousin to Felix and a member of their posse of “Alpha Hotties,” as they are called in the script. Oliver has gone all out to appear put together in his school jacket and tie, striving to fit into a classical image of the Oxford Man. His vestiary aspirations to academic and class belonging are thwarted not only by his peers’ sneering observations, but also in their refusal to conform to the traditional look. Their joke t-shirts, messy makeup, and miniskirts reflect their nonchalance, alienating Oliver visually as well as socially. 


As Oliver finds himself in the Alpha Hotties circle, he trades his uptight checked shirts (barring him in) for Ts and loses his glasses. Casual dressing carries over to Saltburn, where Felix roams in tatty jeans and board shorts. His eyebrow piercing, indicative of his on-trend sensibilities, is removed to appease his mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), but his flippant attitude remains. After Oliver has received the grand tour through Saltburn’s myriad of jewel-box rooms and meets the insensitive, intimidating, irresistible family, Felix comes into his bedroom. Idling by the dresser, he explains that he’s left an old dinner jacket out for Oliver, trying to play it cool as he tells his friend that the family dresses for dinner: “Yeah, it’s like… it’s like black tie.” Felix assumes that Oliver does not have the funds for his own suit, yet in the next sentence asks him if he has cufflinks. Oliver does not. The disparity in wealth, experience, and awareness between Oliver and Felix is felt acutely in this moment, and deeply throughout the film. 


When the family is decked out in their black tie best, they certainly look splendid. Their clothing reads as expensive; their luxury is loud. The pieces must be worth thousands of pounds, but the casualness with which the family dons them both infuriates and evokes jealousy, certainly from Oliver and, potentially, from the audience. The film’s temporal setting—the banal aughts—does ensure, however, that the fashion is not too distracting. The clothes may be gorgeous, but nothing looks so different from our own time that we are driven to distraction as might happen in period films that show off their eras’ styles (think the green dress in Atonement). 


The costumes also do quiet, brilliant work when it comes to characterization. In an interview with Collider, Archie Madekwe shared that an initial instinct that Farleigh should wear Gucci loafers was perfectly supported by research; in the photo book Eton, showcasing students at the prestigious school, “The only person of color, the only Black boy in the book who had a real air of Farleigh to him[...] on his feet was a pair of Gucci loafers.” Whether it’s a spidery dress hinting at someone caught in a web, a pair of antlers evoking the changeling boy at a Midsummer Night’s Dream party, or a suit of armor, costume communicates power, vulnerability, exclusion, entrapment, hollowness, and more. Clothing (or, crucially in an exceedingly memorable scene, lack thereof) serves as an indicator of each character’s interior state and of where they stand in relation to the other characters. We can look over the groups of students, the gathered family and assorted hangers on and know immediately who belongs where, or even who belongs to whom. 


Saltburn is not a film without its problems (in particular the third act feels rushed and more than a bit overstated), but it is a wonderful example of how a director’s conviction, cinematographer’s vision, and actors’ artful but heartfelt performances can be supported, fulfilled, and sharpened through design. The mouth-gaping risks Fennell takes with her script pay off in large part because, as uncomfortable as we may be, we’ve been romanced by the aesthetics of the film in all their glittering, grimy, dichotomies: we don’t want to look away.  

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