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The sour delights of class satire ‘Saltburn’

By Trey Taylor, CNN

(CNN) — There is something fascinating about a young man in the public eye — an actor — putting himself so squarely and so specifically in the purview of gay desire that he becomes, as “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang recently termed it, “gay famous.”

The 26-year-old actor Jacob Elordi — an alum of “Euphoria” and the teen rom-com “Kissing Booth” trilogy, among other roles — is of late firmly under the public’s microscope. This year has seen him crowned GQ’s Man of the Year, play Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola’s biopic “Priscilla” and now takes his place as a fully-formed modern-day matinee idol in director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film, “Saltburn.”

Therein, Elordi plays Felix Catton, a privileged Oxford student (with an eyebrow piercing) and heir to the movie’s titular sweeping estate.

Though Elordi has publicly dated women, his coy Aussie demeanor, best described by his “Saltburn” co-star, Barry Keoghan, as both “sexy” and “charming,” has helped him to stake a claim in the queer cultural conversation. Other young straight actors who have played gay roles in recent years — Timothée Chalamet or Harry Styles in “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) and “My Policeman” (2022), respectively — have somewhat downplayed their characters’ sexualities and focused more on the importance of their films’ narratives. But Elordi is, intentionally or otherwise, playing up to his “Saltburn” character’s pomp, and having a gay old time doing it.

A dark dramedy, “Saltburn” follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Felix and his wealthy family, as their loves and lives are infiltrated by an artfully malevolent outsider. It’s a sharp fusion of lust and class, ambition and artifice.

In the film, Felix’s popularity and good looks — driven home by winking smirks and effusive Britishisms like “love you, mate” — are an all-consuming lure for the more down-at-heel Oliver Quick (played by Keoghan). Desperate to get closer to his target, Oliver reveals that his father has died. “Why don’t you come home with me?” Felix offers as an expression of sympathy, inviting Oliver to spend the summer at his country manor. Its meet-cute machinations are similar in plot and aesthetic to “Brideshead Revisited,” one of the key references writ large (the other being “The Talented Mr. Ripley”).

Immediately, Oliver is enamored of Felix’s tribe and things. He camouflages into the wallpaper like an object of curiosity; from a distance, he astutely observes and dismantles the machinations of the rich family and their inevitable hangers-on. In the shadows, his gaze lingers on Felix: his movements, his tightly-hugged (but often bare) torso from behind doors and around corners.

Elordi embodies this gaze, becoming both subject and object; his character has little to do apart from look hot. The camera’s lens follows Oliver’s gaze, too, focusing at times on trite images like droplets of sweat on the back of his neck. It’s under Oliver’s watchful eye that we see their relationship play out — often at a remove, more rote and platonic than seductive, as there are few chances for the pair to be alone together. Oliver therefore takes pains to get Felix’s attention in sometimes quite disturbing ways, including one scene where he doggedly laps up Felix’s leftover bathwater.

While “Saltburn,” well, burns with an unrepentant seediness, it’s a blaze that’s short and fast — and, once the fuse is lit, there are no questions as to how far Fennell will go to provoke in her characters and her audience. But like any good firecracker, it’s brash, loud and awesomely entertaining.

The follow-up to her Oscar-winning film “Promising Young Woman,” a Trojan horse narrative for the #MeToo period, Fennell — the daughter of a celebrity jewelry designer and graduate of Oxford University herself — is dealing with a subject matter she’s clearly close to. Yet at times she flies too close to the sun; at its worst, “Saltburn” looks like “Bridgerton” and sounds like a frat party, complete with a soundtrack that includes “Time to Pretend” by MGMT. But maybe that’s the point? And what it occasionally lacks in tact it more than makes up for in flourish, with acid-tongued dialogue that critiques the newly-monied in a framework most familiar to them.

While Keoghan plays far and away the more magnetic of the two characters, it’s Elordi, gorgeous if slightly wooden as Felix, who is getting more public notice. He is using the early arc of his career to choose roles that not even a queer fanfic collective could have focus-grouped. In “Euphoria,” his character Nate Jacobs is outed in a high school theatrical production; in the upcoming period drama, an adaptation of the Shannon Pufahl book, “On Swift Horses,” he’ll play a gay casino worker entangled in a love triangle with his coworker. Then there’s “He Came That Way,” an unreleased film starring Elordi, in which he simmers as, wait for it, a serial killer himbo lusted over by Zachary Quinto’s gay monkey trainer.

Whether audiences will think his leaning in helps to sell a highly entertaining but glib film or is just the result of a good-looking actor having a method moment on his press tour is mostly irrelevant. “Saltburn” is referential but new in how it skewers and objectifies the idiotically wealthy. It’s genuinely shocking at parts. And Fennell has ultimately succeeded at aping the privileged and desirable. For all its highs, however, it does leave a mildly salty aftertaste.

Lucky for us all, then, that Elordi is a tall drink of water.

Add to Queue: Queer love, loss and lust amid noblesse oblige

Read: “The Custom of the Country” (1913)

Undine Spragg’s designs on reaching the pinnacle of New York society means she will stop at nothing to attain her goals — even if it means leaving disaster in her wake. This fast-paced novel is one of Edith Wharton’s best; Sofia Coppola has said an adaptation of Wharton’s audacious tale of American aristocracy, and one woman’s efforts to shape it in her own image, will be her next film.

Watch: “Brideshead Revisited” (1981)

Rarely is a book, especially one by as accomplished a writer as Evelyn Waugh, adapted so faithfully without losing what made it beloved. Yet the 1981 BBC series, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, is visually resplendent and fast-paced, with a script that presents the novel’s dialogue verbatim. “Saltburn” could learn a thing or two from this platonic ideal with undertones of homosexual tension — allegedly based on a real college-aged dalliance of Waugh’s.

Watch: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

The blueprint for infiltrating a superior social strata remains Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. This stylish film — starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow — is hardly unfamiliar. What it does so well is expose the schemes of an ambitious man of little means and lays bare the unspoken rules of the leisure class and the awkward intrusions of a new addition to a friend group. But it’s more than successful in building suspense.

Read: “Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos” (2023)

A more recent entry into the queer canon, this 2021 novel by Nash Jenkins never fully spells out its titular character’s sexuality, but alludes to it as an investigation into his moral failings while studying at an elite New Jersey college. Dade’s hormone-fueled relationships with classmates and exploration of the pitfalls of masculinity create an engrossing coming of age sequel of sorts to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”

Read: “England’s Last Hurrah” (2023)

Photographer Dafydd Jones’ book, released earlier this year, takes stock of England’s ruling classes in all their champagne-soaked vulnerability. Monochrome party shots of these Bright Young Things in the swirl of youth and excess during Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to power offer a glimpse into what life was like before globalization and Brexit popped Great Britain’s cheery balloon.

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