This article deals with Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023) and its fetishistic interpretation of class struggle. I’ll delve into how the film depicts social and economic relationships where characters are ‘alienated,’ disconnected from themselves and their surroundings1. Additionally, I’ll discuss how the film makes use of formal, stylistic, and thematic elements to build a world in which reality and fiction, form and content, desire and body, as well as commodities, economic status, and labor, are systematically dissociated. In this respect, I’ll argue that the film is an effective representation of fetishism in the age of social media.

Saltburn follows the story of Oliver Quick, a recently admitted student at Oxford, who develops an obsession with the incredibly wealthy and popular Felix Catton. Oliver, claiming to come from a poor and troubled family, manages to tug at Felix’s heartstrings. Their friendship deepens, and for the summer holidays, Felix invites Oliver to the family estate, Saltburn. Here, Oliver becomes acquainted with Felix’s eccentric family and insinuates himself into their lives. Manipulative and ambiguous, Oliver not only engages in sexual relationships with Felix’s sister and cousin but also attempts to sow discord among the Catton family members. The narrative reaches its climax with the demise of a significant portion of the family, including Felix, while Oliver successfully seizes control of his substantial inheritance.

Since its release, Saltburn has been discussed as an “eat-the-rich” film that employs thriller and dark comedy to depict the class struggle in a more stylish manner than ever, criticizing the capitalist dynamics that underlie the division between the upper classes and the ultra-rich. However, if compared to other recent “eat-the-rich” films such as The Menu [Mark Mylod, 2022] or Triangle of Sadness [Ruben Östlund, 2022], Saltburn is rather ambiguous and enigmatic, and apparently uninterested in its own social subtexts. Many criticized the film’s emphasis on form and style, along with its seemingly apparent lack of interest in delving into its political themes.

There’s absolutely nothing going on underneaththe words that Elspeth uses to describe Pamela are, ironically, the same that numerous reviews used to criticize the film.

Indeed, by interpreting Saltburn as an “eat-the-rich” film, we would basically misinterpret part of its intentions. As suggested by Emerald Fennell2, the director, Saltburn is more accurately described as “lick the rich, suck the rich, and then bite the rich, and then swallow them”. This definition hints at one of the fundamental themes of this analysis. As trivial as it may sound, “licking, sucking, biting, and swallowing” is quite distinct from simply “eating”. While the “eat-the-rich” slogan implies the necessity of using the rich as nourishment (it comes from “When the people have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich”, a claim that Adolphe Thiers said Chaumette attributed to Rousseau), what happens in the film prescinds entirely from a state of necessity. Oliver is not as economically deprived as he wants others to believe, and he doesn’t sneak into (and take control of) Saltburn due to a lack of alternatives or absolute poverty. Oliver is already affluent; he merely aspires to become as wealthy as the Cattons. Saltburn‘s social commentary is enhanced by such a removal of necessity: it depicts a class struggle that is driven neither by needs nor by ideals but solely by processes of fetishization.

To understand how, it’s first of all worth introducing the relationship between Felix and Oliver. Just as Oliver is drawn to Felix’s image (his social status, wealth, success), Felix is fascinated by Oliver’s (being a scholarship student, having a troubled family, and so on). The two are not so much bound because they get to know each other but because they are drawn by the self-image they show each other. When he gets to Saltburn, Oliver is as excited as Felix when they reach his family on his birthday. The fascination with those living in disadvantaged or precarious conditions is shared by the other Cattons, as suggested by Pamela’s presence and the fact that Oliver is not the first less fortunate friend Felix has brought to Saltburn.

I just gave you what you wanted. Like everyone else does. Everyone puts on a show for Felix. I’m sorry my performance wasn’t good enough…”. In Saltburn, both the social classes depicted play a role that doesn’t correspond to reality. In the film, society is evidently superficial, it conceals reality with appearance. 

Saltburn reveals a world of wealthy individuals whose relationships are based on how they present themselves and perceive each other. As the story unfolds, we find out that everything Oliver told about himself is untrue. By the end of the film, we realize we don’t truly know him beyond what he chose to show us (and Felix, and his familiy). At the same time, the Cattons remain somewhat mysterious. Bound to Oliver’s perspective, we only know what they decide to share with him, and it becomes evident that many of their conversations happen offscreen. As we become aware that the rooms of Saltburn we see are very few compared to the total rooms in the mansion, we realize that Felix and his family only let us see a minimal part of themselves. When they do, they are still hidden in plain sight by a facade of conventions, codes, rituals, and the like (the same intricate system the family tries to uphold after Felix’s death).

The film depicts a conflict between social classes in a fetishistic guise. These classes fetishize each other and, at the same time, fetishize themselves with specific social aims in mind. In both cases, the characters’ self-presented images detach from reality: as we get to know them, they increasingly seem to be alienated from themselves3. Here the concepts of fetishism and alienation are to be intended as intertwined, much like in Karl Marx’s philosophy4. As highlighted in the relationship between commodity and labor in the capitalist market, fetishism, for the philosopher, involves focusing on an object alienated from the process that produced it or from the reality to which it belongs. For Marx the commodity, once detatched from the productive logics that produced it, assumes a mystical quality: it becomes a fetish. Even in its religious connotation, the fetish signifies precisely this: an object alienated from its real value, invested with a different meaning. In this sense, Saltburn is imbued with fetishism: we know nothing about how the Cattons accumulated their immense wealth (and we know that behind any excessive accumulation of wealth there are always more or less marked acts of violence), and similarly, we know nothing about why Oliver is obsessed with Felix, or why Felix is fascinated by Oliver’s alleged poverty. Of all the characters involved, we see only a surface alienated from the processes moving beneath, both economic and psychological.

When Oliver visits his real parents, he expresses impatience and disappointment. We discover that this is not only due to the lies told about them to Felix: the boy has long disappeared from home, without giving any more news. He is a subject alienated from his original self, he rejects his identity as he adopted a new one.

The film’s fetishistic interpretation of class struggle is primarily reinforced by how sexuality is depicted. Oliver’s sexual encounters vary according to the role and social position of his partners. Oliver uses sex as a manipulative and coercive tool with both Farleigh, another guest at Saltburn and Felix’s cousin, and Venetia, Felix’s sister. Towards the former, Oliver maintains a position of power, as Farleigh is his rival and equal. With the latter, he gets both coercitive and submissive, agreeing to perform oral sex even though she is menstruating.

As Oliver says, “he is a vampire“: before Venetia’s menstrual blood, we see him licking the water from the tub where Felix masturbated. In contrast to his relationship with Farleigh, Oliver’s connection with Felix is entirely submissive, strictly indirect, and explicitly fetishistic. Before licking his semen in the tub, in the first part of the film, Oliver insists on cleaning Felix’s dirty room. Later, after the funeral, he masturbates on Felix’s grave.

Quite wisely, Fennell chooses never to fully explain Oliver’s attraction to Felix: by the end of the film, it is unclear whether Oliver loved or hated Felix and why he was so obsessed with his social status, possessions (wearing his clothes and inheriting his house), and bodily fluids (sweat, semen). What is sure is that his interest in Felix (and, by extension, in his sister or the girl he dismisses in Oxford) is purely fetishistic. Just as in fetishism the link between the fetish and the world is obscured, Oliver interacts with Felix’s fetishes rather than his real body—his dirt, discarded people, bodily fluids, and the earth covering his corpse.

Beyond sexuality, Saltburn reveals its fetishistic interpretation of class struggle through style and mise-en-scène. The opulent, meticulously curated, and controlled aesthetics, the relentless pursuit of the perfect frame at the cost of forced unnaturalness, the explicit reference to recent television series (notably Euphoria [Sam Levinson, 2019-present]), and an overall intention to make every image, fragment, and shot shareable on social media serve as a formal and stylistic embodiment of the fetishistic theme observed thus far. The film’s focus on visuals and style (the latter is also mentioned in various dialogue) points out to the detachment between a sumptuous surface and something invisible, hiddenboth narratively and visually. Through its style and aesthetics, Saltburn reaffirms its social critique and becomes an inherently fetishistic experience, where we are constantly attracted to details, extreme close-ups, calibrated movements, and perfect frames—while everything beneath the surface remains systematically concealed.

At the beginning, Oliver and Farleigh discuss the relationship between style and content in a critical essay presented to the Oxford tutor. In the film’s dialogues, issues of form and content, surface and depth, appearance and reality are frequently brought into play.

The film itself is a fetish: a chic, polished, and opulent object that, like its characters, lost its connection with the underlying reality (both narrative and visual, as well as economic and psychological). In doing so, it also takes on a mystical quality, as evidenced by various ethereal edits with off-screen voiceovers that capture the spiritual tone of the latest Malick and combine it with an aesthetic reminiscent of music videos like The Killers’ Mr. Brightside.

The film opens with Oliver’s off-screen voice, accompanied by classical music, speaking about Felix. This occurs while we see quick images of the boy in various settings.

It is also worth noting another aspect of this fetishistic interpretation of society in Saltburn. One of the most frequently mentioned features in many reviews of Fennell’s film is its aspect ratio, 1.33:1. Whilst of course the format aims to provide a surreal and artificial appearance, it is more interesting if interpreted by following Fennell’s words. According to the director, “It gives you the impression of peeping in, and that’s kind of what this is. It’s a doll’s house and we’re all kind of peeping in, scrabbling to get in”5. In fact, it reminds the near-square format of Instagram poststhat is, images created and shared precisely to allow others to peep into our lives. This connection between Saltburn and social media is not surprising. In contemporary social media platforms, we constantly engage in processes of self-fetishization and self-commodification when constructing our virtual identities6and this is precisely the scenario to which the film alludes and in which its class struggle takes place.

The interactions between the two main characters closely resemble the parasocial interactions we find on social media, especially those between fanbases and influencers. At the beginning of the film, the relationship between Oliver and Felix revolves entirely around the gaze: Oliver looks at Felix, and Felix only occasionally (and perhaps accidentally) gazes back. Oliver follows Felix with his eyes, spies on him during intimate moments, watches him from afar in the midst of the crowd. Oliver is a subject (and it’s not by chance that his perspective guides the narrative), and Felix is the object of his gazethe image he looks at, fascinated and captivated. At first, their relationship is unilateral and entirely based on the distance that separates them, which only the protagonists’s persistent glances can shorten. Felix is portrayed as an angel, an Adonis, an unreal creaturethe film itself fetishizes him, mirroring Oliver’s gaze. The fact that the characters approach each other in a fetishistic way, captivated by self-narratives that overlay reality (as becomes evident in Oliver’s case), or attracted to material fetishes (whether goods or liquids), tells us about a social world where the class struggle between the rich and the ultra-rich, far from being a matter of necessity, has become primarily a matter of images and self-narratives.

The first time Oliver looks at Felix, the glass window multiplies his image as if it were an audience in front of a screen. The relationship between Oliver and Felix mirrors that between an audience and an influencer.

In an interview, explaining that Saltburn, despite being set in the early 2000s, serves as a mirror to the present, Fennell emphasizes this aspect: “We’ve never spent more time looking at other people’s lives and comparing our lives to theirs. During Covid, I was sitting there online just watching, watching, watching. All of us are on social media looking at influencers and people we don’t knowyet I know everything about them7. This is exactly what the film depicts: a hybrid world between the social and parasocial, where the class struggle is reduced to a fetishistic matter.

I want to conclude this article by reflecting on a significant aspect of the role of desire in Saltburn. The final dance of the film is a “triumph, a post-coital win”8 in which Oliver walks naked through Saltburn, now abandoned. The scene not only marks the culmination of the protagonist’s desire to take possession of the estate but also follows the film’s last (and again, fetishistic) pseudo-sexual encounter, the one where he kills Elspeth by disconnecting the machinery that keeps her alive. Significantly, during this liberating dance, Oliver’s penis is flaccid. However, there is another moment in the film when we see Oliver undress, namely when he masturbates on Felix’s grave. Even in that case, the protagonist’s penis is flaccid. This representation of Oliver’s naked body suggests something about the role of desire (or its absence) in the world depicted by the film.

The killing of Elspeth is depicted as a coitus.

While Saltburn is saturated with sexuality, we never see any manifestation of desire, neither from Oliver nor from anyone else. Sex in the film is portrayed as an exercise or display of status (and therefore as part of self-narration, cf. Felix having sex at Oxford or masturbating with the door open in Saltburn), as the appropriation of others’ status (cf. Oliver at Oxford), as a manipulative tool (cf. Oliver in Saltburn), and as a symbolic act (cf. Oliver with Felix’s fetishes or with Elspeth). Throughout the film, there is no sexual encounter isolated from social and fetishistic superstructures, or beyond power dynamics. Similarly, the flaccidity of Oliver’s penis indicates that in all this fetishization, desire seems entirely absent or at least disconnected from the desiring body.

The two scenes where we see Oliver’s penis. Even in the pre-coital phase (before masturbating on Felix’s grave), Oliver’s penis remains flaccid, as if desire and body were alienated from each other.

Oliver’s obsession with the fetishized Felix has neither been driven by necessity (as in most traditional interpretations of class struggle) nor by desire. It is a sexual and bodily obsession, both in the modality and in its impact, but propelled by logics that prescind from those of the body. The film not only depicts our contemporary, fetishistic society, but also claims something significant about the transformation that desire may undergo within it9. Oliver’s penis, like everything else, is presented in a fetishistic light: its flaccidity obscures the presence of volition and arousal. Oliver’s penis is alienated from desire and makes clear that everything we have seen in Saltburn ultimately did not originate from the body. Rather, it merely brought bodies and subjects into collision, like an invisible hand; it did not have a real trigger, it somehow happened just because it couldn’t be any other way, like an automatic mechanism. A power play that, unlike observations by Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari, in this case seems entirely detached from desire.

NOTES

1. Karl Marx, Ökonomische-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844 [Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844], in Marx Engels Werke [Marx-Engels Works] vol. 40, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975, pp. 465-588.

2. Tasha Robinson, Saltburn is a ‘lick the rich, suck the rich’ movie, says Emerald Fennell, Polygon, 25/11/2023, https://www.polygon.com/23973198/saltburn-interview-emerald-fennell-eat-the-rich-internet-fame

3. Karl Marx, op. cit., 515.

4. Miriam Madureira, Me, Myself and I: Self-fetishisation in the Age of the Selfie, Open Cultural Studies, 2, 2018, pp. 363–373

5. Rebecca Ford, Welcome to Saltburn’s Twisted Gothic Tale, Vanity Fair, 29/11/2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2023/08/saltburn-first-look-emerald-fennell-interview-awards-insider

6. Miriam Madureira, op. cit.

7. Roe McDermott, Emerald Fennell on Saltburn: Barry Keoghan is “so compelling, beautiful, strange and interesting”, Hot Press, 17/11/2023, https://www.hotpress.com/film-tv/emerald-fennell-on-saltburn-barry-keoghan-is-so-compelling-beautiful-strange-and-interesting-22996872

8. Armando Tinoco, Barry Keoghan On Stripping Clothes Off For ‘Saltburn’s Final Scene: “It Totally Felt Right”, Deadline, 25/12/2023, https://deadline.com/2023/12/barry-keoghan-stripping-clothes-off-saltburn-final-scene-1235681910/

9. For an in-depth reflection on desire in contemporary cinema, see also Carlee Gomes, The Puritanical Eye: Hyper-Mediation, Sex on Film, and the Disavowal of DesireLo Specchio Scuro, 2023.