The Bizarre Sex Scenes of Saltburn, Explained
Saltburn, a psychological thriller that falls somewhere between Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley, is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the controversial revenge movie Promising Young Woman. Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver, a working class kid who gets into Oxford on a scholarship, but finds himself isolated from his wealthier, more privileged classmates—that is, until he meets the charismatic Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi.
The two young men soon become close friends, and Felix invites Oliver to come and stay with him at his family home, the vast and opulent country estate that gives the film its title. There, Oliver becomes entangled in the lives of Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father James (Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe).
As Oliver’s infatuation with Felix and covetousness of the Cattons’ decadent lives grow, his interactions with each of the family become increasingly charged, leading to some of Saltburn‘s most memorable moments.
Spoilers follow for key plot details.
We first get a glimpse of just how intense Oliver’s obsession with Felix is when, after moving into a bedroom with an adjoining bathroom, he spies on Felix masturbating in the bath. Once Felix has gone to bed, Oliver climbs into the tub and begins to lap up the remainder of the semen and bathwater circling the drain in a moment that will have half the audience wincing and the other half laughing uncomfortably.
“I was like, ‘Thank God, it’s mine,'” Elordi joked in a recent interview with Variety. “I was very proud. I was very proud to have Barry Keoghan guzzling it like that.”
The homoerotic undertones of Saltburn are so prevalent they’re more like an Instagram filter through which the entire film is viewed, but Oliver is indiscriminate in his seduction of the Catton family. In addition to flirting with Elspeth, he also has a memorable encounter with Felix’s troubled sister Venetia.
The “sexually incontinent” younger Catton sets her sights on Oliver as soon as he arrives, and he wastes no time in asserting control over her, following her into the garden at night and performing cunnilingus. When Venetia protests that it’s not the “right time of the month,” Oliver declares himself a “vampire,” and daubs them both in her menstrual blood. Whether Oliver is sublimating his desire for Felix by seducing his sister, or merely attempting to ingratiate himself with the Cattons any way he can, is unclear in that instant.
A more explicitly queer moment comes later in the movie, when Oliver sneaks into Farleigh’s room while he is sleeping, and the animosity between the two hangers-on culminates in Oliver bringing him to orgasm while commanding that he “behave” from now on. “It was a real pinch-me moment to have a scene with an actor I’ve respected for so long,” Madekwe said. “He has such an intensity. He has these eyes that Emerald describes as ‘shark eyes.’ You just don’t know what he’s thinking.”
For filmmaker Emerald Fennell, the ingestion and exchange of bodily fluids in the script—from spit to semen to period blood—was directly influenced by the pandemic, and the limitations placed on intimacy and desire during the lockdowns. “There is a direct line between the fluids that exist in this film and the fact we were not allowed to even breathe the same air for nearly two years, that the things of the body were not allowed to be touched,” she told Sky News.
But all of these tense erotic encounters pale in comparison to a climactic sequence near the end of the movie. (Again, spoilers.)
After uncovering his new friend’s many twisted lies and ending their friendship at Oliver’s birthday party, Felix’s body is found the next day in the middle of the hedge maze, his cause of death a seemingly accidental overdose. Distraught at the loss of his idol, Oliver attends the funeral and remains at the graveside when the rest of the family return to the house.
In a stark, extended shot, a bereft Oliver lies on top of Felix’s grave in the rain as he weeps, eventually removing his clothes and having sex with the dirt. It is destined to be the most talked-about scene in Saltburn, equal parts poignant and darkly funny, but to the movie’s leading man and director, it was a logical conclusion to the story they had been telling.
“The gravesite was sort of like a collaboration with me and Emerald,” said Keoghan. “On the day, I was like, ‘Can I try something?’ I wanted to see what the next level of obsession was. So I asked for a closed set. I wanted to see where it went. It could have gone completely wrong but I think it moved the story.”
Fennell, for her part, sees the scene as depicting Oliver—so distant and deceptive for the majority of his screen-time—at his most human. “If you’re taken over with grief and horror and love and sadness, people do crazy things,” she said. “And that’s what this film is about.”
Philip Ellis is News Editor at Men’s Health, covering fitness, pop culture, sex and relationships, and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV, and he is the author of Love & Other Scams.