Let's Talk About Dining in Saltburn
Didn't see the twists coming? Perhaps you didn't pay attention to the meals enough...
While critics consider “Saltburn”—Emerald Fennell’s polarizing hit on privilege and performance—all shock and no meat, Gen Z has already co-opted the film, because contemporary culture is a sucker for nothing if not a lurid aesthetic.
In the film, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford student on scholarship, infiltrates the elitist world of classmate and unlikely friend Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) making his way into drunken romps on campus, and eventually staying with the Catton family on their estate, where—spoiler alert!—he picks the family off one by one. It’s a shocking twist, unless you looked closely at the dining scenes, which tell their own story through lighting, food, and language, foreshadowing the film’s dark ending in subtle ways…
Towards the beginning, we follow Oliver into the dining hall. The lighting in this dining scene is the darkest of all. Trudging through the shadows of people, Oliver is no one in a school of people with last names on buildings. A single seat is open for him, externalizing his current path in life. He finds himself across from the nerdy Ewan Mitchell (Michael Gavey). They both wear glasses, like twisted reflections of one another.
“FUCKIN ASK ME A SUM,” Mitchell yells. Could this be the coarse future self that Oliver fears? Or a reflection of Oliver’s own twisted genius (which we’ll see eventually)? The dining hall is dim and the plates are empty — hinting perhaps at the emptiness Oliver occupies in this world, or at his future, where the possibilities are endless…
Riding a rapid friendship, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his home — the lavish Saltburn estate. Oliver’s first dinner, with Catton family and company, still touts romantic candlelight, but it’s lighter than the Oxford dining hall. Pamela—a fragile family friend—eats up most of the dialogue. Her father said she’d “end up in the bottom of the Thames,” she tells them. Oliver eats gingerly, offering Pamela encouraging remarks. There is a single spear of asparagus on her plate (think Manet). Pamela does not touch it. White wine is sipped. Oliver’s dinner conversation—“rights” and “ahs”—shows his ability to keep someone speaking, remaining innocuous while gleaning information to use later. One of these diners will be the first to go. The single spear left out of the bouquet. Perhaps not in the Thames, but drown Pamela will.
Bright sunlight right on Oliver’s face, illuminating a character we realize there is more to than we once knew. He asks for a full English breakfast, but breakfast is on the side(table). The butler asks how he takes his eggs.
“It’s fine I can get them.”
But the eggs aren’t on the side. Oliver makes mistakes in this new world, is exposed in the sunlight. Or is he? Some viewers question whether or not this infamous egg scene is another point in his scheme toward heir status. There is untouched tea and toast, parts of the meal with real substance, pointing to the Catton’s performativity. The eggs are taken away, but their symbolism lingers. The family will soon crack. True Oliver will be born.
Golden boy Felix lays dead in the hedge maze. The coroner is here. And the family sits for lunch. Washed in afternoon light, they pick at ugly slices of pie. The parents praise the cake from the night before, the birthday cake of the friend of their dead son. Only Farleigh, the Catton’s cousin, clutches to reality. The Butler asks to close the curtains — Felix’s body will be carried across the lawn. Venetia, the sister, pours wine, red now. It overflows, like the water in her tub will when she dies. The curtains won’t close. Farleigh won’t eat. The wine bottle is now empty, the curtains finally close and we are left bathed in red. Our lunch is washed in a dim red glow. Farleigh stands. “Lunch is cold.” Like the body of his beloved cousin.
“EAT THE BLOODY PIE,” father tells him.
“I think it’s delicious,” says Oliver, willing to lie over lunch, to be polite and performative instead of mourn openly. Willing to play into this fantasy he’s spent time learning how to subtly manipulate. The scene ends with a wide shot of the red room. The familial bloodshed has begun. No turning back now. Soon, murderous Oliver will be prancing through the empty estate, nude and high on coke, all of it his.
Dining throughout “Saltburn” gives us a few lessons. The importance of lighting.The types of exchanges and development that can occur in a dining room, underneath the language. Unspoken themes and motifs in the color of wine or an empty plate. What is eaten in the dark will come to the light. Be careful what you say over dinner, it just might come true. And sometimes, a forkful of cold pie tastes like a family fortune.