Come for the cum-guzzling; stay for the high camp final act and Rosamund Pike Mothering on every level. Saltburn may not be the queer love story that some fans were expecting, but it’s easy to see why LGBTQIA+ viewers are really embracing this chaotic psychological thriller. Since it arrived on Prime Video on December 22, Saltburn has dominated social media as fans dissect its homoerotic central friendship, make memes of Pike’s many priceless lines and jump on a TikTok trend celebrating the movie’s outrageous viral nude scene.
It feels correct that one of the benefactors of the Saltburn effect is Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 banger ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’. The film’s director Emerald Fennell says she chose it to soundtrack that wicked nude scene where Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) dances joyously around the country house he has just inherited because “no other song” contains “the evil glee, the sheer fun [and] the irresistible camp” of Ellis-Bextor’s Y2K classic. Now, thanks to a massive streaming bump, Murder on the Dancefloor is heading back into the UK Top 10. What could please Queer Twitter more than seeing a longtime gay icon get her flowers?
Written and directed by Fennell, who previously made the Oscar-winning female revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, Saltburn is flawed but often fabulous. When it opened in cinemas in November, much of the online discourse centred on the dubious merits of its class politics – is Fennell skewering extreme privilege or sort of glamorising it? Her film tracks the progress of Keoghan’s Oliver, an ambitious Oxford scholarship boy who becomes obsessed with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a classmate so posh he barely bothers with consonants. Oliver wins Felix’s friendship with acts of kindness and candour – both of which, spoiler alert, turn out to be contrived – then targets his rich dysfunctional family. The Oxford scenes are fun and nostalgic, but Fennell’s film really blossoms into homoerotic chaos when Oliver arrives at Felix’s majestic family home: the titular Saltburn.
It is here that Oliver spots Felix masturbating in their shared bathtub, then jumps in after his crush has climaxed and left. If you don’t know by now that Oliver ends up slurping from the plughole, where have you been? One Etsy seller has even created the Jacob Elordi’s Bathwater Candle. But, even if you find this scene mildly titillating rather than genuinely transgressive, it’s hard to deny that it captures the prickly thrill of unrequited lust. Many LGBTQIA+ viewers will recognise the way Oliver has fallen hard for Felix, a straight friend who maybe just maybe gives off the odd hint of flirtiness.
"No film with a Cheeky Girls song on its soundtrack should also have a scene where the main character humps a grave"
Fennell never labels Oliver’s sexuality, though some Twitter wags have branded him a “chaotic bisexual”. Keoghan’s character has sexual encounters with Felix’s sad sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and cutting cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) – so far, so bi. Later, he marries then murders Felix’s vulnerable mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) as his masterplan’s coup de grace: when she dies, Saltburn will finally be his. Still, because Oliver seems to view sex more as a psychological weapon than an act of pleasure, it’s unclear whether he actually fancies anyone but Felix. Even that attraction feels unclear because Oliver contradicts himself in a parting voiceover. “I wasn’t in love with him, though everyone thought I was,” he tells us. “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him. But was I in love with him?”
Whatever you make of Oliver’s sexually ambiguous but abominable behaviour, his journey definitely has a queer-coded edge. He is totally fixated on someone unattainable. He reinvents himself in order to be accepted – well, tolerated – in a world where he doesn’t belong. He does the Pet Shop Boys at karaoke. OK, that last one only happens because Farleigh, cruelly, wants to hear Oliver sing “I love you, you pay my rent” in front of the people putting him up. But in a way, it highlights the main reason Saltburn is being embraced by many LGBTQIA+ viewers: it’s unafraid to look camp right in the eye, then do something unhinged. Really, no film with a Cheeky Girls song on its soundtrack should also have a scene where the main character humps a grave. But Saltburn does and somehow pulls it off.
The film’s wicked kitsch stream is embodied by Rosamund Pike’s Elsbeth, a monstrous former model who wafts around Saltburn with blithe entitlement. This shady lady of the manor is just the sort of villain that Queer Twitter can get behind: glamorous, delusional and ill-fated in a similar way to Jennifer Coolidge’s The White Lotus character Tanya McQuoid. It helps that Fennell gives Elsbeth all the best lines and Pike repays her by eating them up. “I was a lesbian for a while, you know,” she says at one point. “But it was all just too wet for me in the end – men are so lovely and dry.” Bless you for trying, Elsbeth. Or maybe not.
It’s early days, but Saltburn already looks like a film that will live or die with its LGBTQ+ fanbase. When asked whether it should be viewed as a “queer thriller”, Fennell said “absolutely”, though it’s no more a perfect queer film than a perfect country house film or a perfect film about class. What Saltburn does possess is enough camp chaos and queer-coded weirdness to make it a future cult classic. You can even imagine watching it on a double bill with Showgirls. So, I’ll look forward to seeing you in 2034 at a quote-along 10th anniversary screening. I’ll be the one dressed as “Poor Dear” Pamela, Carey Mulligan’s character who really deserved better. You can come as Oliver in deer antlers. Or if you’re feeling bold, as a giant plughole.
Saltburn is available to stream on Prime Video.