How Saltburn became the most talked-about film of 2023

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Emerald Fennell’s stately home thriller Saltburn made $21m at the box office – and might just be one of the most-seen films of 2023. How the heck did that happen?

It wasn’t long ago that the $35m Beau Is Afraid, after dividing critics and early punters like an overzealous magician with a hacksaw, landed in cinemas with a splash that sounded a lot like a belly flop.

Arriving a few months before Barbenheimer completely rewrote the cinema mood music, there’s every chance Ari Aster’s film missed out on a more curious movie-going culture by a matter of weeks. Then again, Beau was always, generously, going to be a long shot in cinemas. A three-hour, absurdist odyssey with a main character who – spoiler alert – was given life by a giant cock and balls with a face, it’s hardly the Hereditary director’s most accessible work.

“I knew this film was going to have people hating it or hopefully loving it”, Aster told Vanity Fair in the release’s aftermath. But instead of galvanizing a curious audience to form their own opinion on the deeply weird Joaquin Phoenix odyssey, audiences took one look at Beau and shrugged.

“Oh, the response is all over the board, so I’m not going to bother,” Aster surmised the reaction.

When Saltburn arrived in cinemas last November, history seemed to be repeating itself. The reviews, though, on balance, more positive than negative, were similarly scattershot. The BBC named it “deliriously enjoyable”. The New Yorker called it “incel cinema”. The Guardian asked if it was “the most divisive film of the year”, and Vulture penned a discussion piece between two of its writers titled “Is Saltburn Stupid In A Good Way Or A Bad Way?

Still, helped by a less ambitious scale and a couple of hot young rising stars in Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan, a few weeks into its run Saltburn had all the makings of a reasonably profitable little picture. But it wasn’t long before Amazon announced the film would be heading to Prime Video on 22nd December – all but killing its theatrical momentum dead. For an outrageous, reaction-demanding thriller like this one, the impossibility of seeing the film with a squirmy and very vocal cinema audience, once upon a time, would’ve been the end of Fennell’s sophomore outing.

Instead, the film’s anachronistically festive release proved something of a masterstroke. With families gathered around the TV hunting for something cross-generational to watch, Saltburn’s in-your-face unsuitability hidden behind a paper-thin visage of a lovely stately home and the nice woman from Call The Midwife proved a difficult prank to resist.

One Twitter/X user went viral after their family rejected their choice of Christmas Eve entertainment. TikTok found great amusement in showing elderly relatives reacting to Saltburn’s fruitiest scenes. A brief trend saw wealthy 20-somethings prancing through their mansions to Murder On The Dancefloor.

Soon, the media giants in the playground were getting in on the act. The Independent and Business Insider both ran columns describing the harrowing experience of cross-generational soft porn watching. We even wrote a guide on How To Watch Saltburn With Your Nan. Not that it matters, but we were the first (and, therefore, cleverest) to do so.

Fast forward to the week the Oscar nominations were announced, and Saltburn was still the most-logged film on Letterboxd – the beloved social media darling of the cinephile community. A week later, it had dropped down to sixth place, still ahead of new releases Mean Girls and Anyone But You despite arriving on the big screen two months prior.

But why has Saltburn, of all things, become the most talked-about film of 2023? In a time when media discourse is increasingly politicised, its politics are… odd. Far from attempting to moralise its characters’ actions, or even coming down on one recognised political side or another, the message Fennell’s text presents us with is the largely unpopular “we have to stop middle class people living in mansions”. It’s the kind of left-field opinion which could probably only come from the daughter of London’s foremost Etonian jewellery magnate.

Of course, class politics are less likely to inspire a reaction video than plughole guzzling and a spot of borderline necrophilia. But Saltburn’s take on the nuances (or otherwise) of British aristocracy might be just what’s allowed it to break through into the mainstream. Its ending is such a bizarre hill to die on that no one, not even the alt-right trolls populating the internet’s waste outlets, seems to have made any attempt to agree with it.

Instead, the overwhelming consensus around Saltburn’s plot is that it’s nonsense. Whether it’s entertaining nonsense or not is another question entirely.

In the world of the film, coincidences, contrivances and temporal contradictions fly as fast as Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick changes his charisma stat. Depending on who you ask, Saltburn’s sex scenes are either “not as edgy and controversial as they think they are” or “edgy and controversial for their own sake”. Occasionally, they are both.

But plot holes and bits-the-director-only-included-because-they’re-fun are hardly new phenomena. In mainstream, 21st century cinema, though, they sort of are. Because, as franchises and sequels hit the multiplexes with all the financial and penetrative success of a caviar-constructed dildo, the gaping hole left in the blockbuster’s wake has left a surprising way in for a type of film we haven’t seen since before the pandemic: fun, pulpy nonsense for grown-ups.

Hollywood’s most recent output, you see, has broadly fit into three camps. A film released between 2020 and 2022, by and large, was either a four-quadrant blockbuster (a $200m action-adventure movie designed to appeal to, quite literally, everyone and their nan), a movie designed to win everyone in it an award, or a horror flick. There were, of course, exceptions – but the idea that a film could be both financially successful, unapologetically entertaining and win a bunch of shiny trophies was basically unheard of.

It’s for that reason that Saltburn’s success seems to have baffled the entertainment industry. It’s a film strictly for grown-ups that (BAFTA’s acting categories notwithstanding) really hasn’t made much of a dent in awards conversation at all – and no one seems too upset about that. It’s a smartly made, funny, entertainingly twisty and accessible thriller which, by its end, everyone basically agrees is utterly ridiculous. Even while singing its praises from their highest balconies, there’s barely a whimper that Saltburn is, to use entertainment’s favourite phrase, an Oscar snub. For years, critics have been lamenting the death of the mid-budget thriller. Now that it’s re-emerged, it seems we don’t entirely know what to do with it.

Then again, perhaps the film’s success isn’t, as author Scott Meslow told The Guardian recently, exactly rocket science.

“[If] you find stars who are hot and want to do movies like this, and you put some actual marketing muscle behind it – and you made a good movie – people are going to see it,” Meslow said.

That statement was made in relation to another surprise hit of the last few months – Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney’s 90s-style rom-com Anyone But You, which has sailed its way past the $100m mark in a cinema landscape convinced that people don’t go out to watch romantic comedies anymore. But the same logic can easily be applied to Saltburn – bung a bunch of attractive people into a nice setting, type “sex-murder-sex-twist” into a screenwriting software of your choice and you pretty much have the recipe that’s sustained Hollywood since the movies began.

Saltburn’s success, then, is a fascinating amalgamation of the old and the new. Shock factor, social media and the accessibility of streaming have proven a textbook example of how to market a film in 2023. But the key to its enduring popularity is something very old, and very simple: movie stars, jokes, and an entertaining plot.

Execs and hedge fund managers across Hollywood might be looking at the Barbie and Super Mario Bros formula to chalk up their next hit. 2023 could go down as the start of a long line of video game and corporate marketing movies designed to make a quick (and massive) buck.

But they’d do well not to ignore the success of Saltburn. Whatever you think of the film, it could end up being just the kick the mid-budget movie needs.

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