‘Saltburn’ Revisited: the queer aesthetic

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Whether in theatres, through word of mouth, or via plot summaries prompted by ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ TikTok trends, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (2023) has pervaded public consciousness. This erotic thriller wrapped in dark academia and neon lighting has sparked discussions ranging from class awareness to mental health and, occasionally, exploration of queer representation.

Saltburn follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an introverted northerner navigating his first year at Oxford University in 2006. He becomes close friends with charismatic and intensely rich BNOC Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and is invited to Felix’s family estate – Saltburn. 

If I had to sum up Saltburn, I’d say it was The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) meets Brideshead Revisited (1981). Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) is a story about Charles Ryder who befriends the rich, beautiful Sebastian Flyte during his first year at Oxford, and goes to spend summer at Brideshead, Sebastian’s family estate. I watched the show as a kid, so it was easy to see its influence in Saltburn. But one thing sticks out as totally different: how queerness is depicted in a homophobic society versus an accepting one.

Brideshead Revisited was written in 1945 and set in the 1920s to 1940s, broadly taking inspiration from Waugh’s life. It’s very important then to note it was written and set in a time where homosexuality was illegal in the UK.  

It reveals an untold history of quasi-acceptable queerness in the upper classes of the early 20th century

The first few episodes are totally entrenched in the almost explicitly queer relationship between Charles (Jeremy Irons) and Sebastian (Anthony Andrews); how they stand together and hold each other, even in public, is intimate and beyond platonic. It also portrays characters as almost ‘out’ in the 20s, from having a group of friends called ‘The Sodomites’ to being clocked as ‘fairies’ by women at a party. Though people seem to think that them being queer is merely quirky or charming, so they’re clearly not being threatened. One character literally addresses their “romantic friendship”, saying “I think it’s better to have this first kind of love for a boy than for a girl.” 

It’s intriguing as it reveals an untold history of quasi-acceptable queerness in the upper classes of the early 20th century. Gay relationships in an intensely homophobic age being recognised as somewhat common, while still exploring the impact of being repressed, clearly suggested in both show and novel as the source of Sebastian’s alcoholism. In the TV show this isn’t shied away from or exaggerated, but there is still an incredibly intense closeness between the characters which is barely sexually ambiguous. 

So, you have a show made in the 80s, written in the 40s, set in the 20s, exploring queer love and pain in a clear but (safely) implicit way. What about Saltburn, set almost a hundred years later?

Saltburn is explicitly queer. There’s a vague bisexuality to the characters, including the infamous “I was a lesbian for a while, you know” line from Felix’s mother (Rosamund Pike). The characters could sleep with whoever they want, and it wouldn’t feel out of place. It’s modern, it’s erotic, it’s very gay. 

Oddly enough, this kind of broad representation seems almost less explicit than Brideshead. The lead character Oliver loves Felix; the film begins by saying that outright. He is sexually free like the other characters – sexuality isn’t even a question (which is a big step away from the realities of 2006). Even so, there is no queer lens over the explicitly queer things happening. There’s no implication that homophobia or queer identity have any influence – positive or negative – on the characters or their behaviour. Like many recent works, Saltburn portrays a world where queer sex exists free from queer identity or homophobia.

Surely this is a good thing? Well, I don’t know. Brideshead Revisited explores the experience of fluid sexuality and battles with religion, without ever needing to show homophobia towards Charles or Sebastian. It is a beautiful tragedy, with homophobia as the unnamed culprit. It makes their moments sadder and more tender, and resonates with queer audiences a hundred years later. If it were made and set now, then something which utilised the same realism would still have to grapple with homophobia, just a very different kind to that of the 1920s.

It is not a liberated version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’, it it not a liberated idea of gay or bisexual identity

Unlike Brideshead, Saltburn has no queer joy or struggle. Bisexuality is a plot device, an aesthetic, and while racism and classism are still fully at play, homophobia isn’t. Considering this film isn’t about homophobia or romance, maybe that’s fine. But the fact that a story written in 1945 does a better job at exploring queer desire and identity than a film made in 2023 (which has the benefit of being legally allowed to) is odd.

Saltburn is a ‘retelling’ of Brideshead Revisited only as far as the queer aesthetic can take it. It is not a liberated version of Brideshead Revisited, it is not a liberated idea of gay or bisexual identity. It’s a world where sexuality is free and identity is fluid, and that’s not a bad thing. But it is certainly a different kind of queerness, one which feels out of place and distant to the works it takes inspiration from. What remains is this idea that adult queer stories are about gay sex. I think anyone who thinks that should read or watch Brideshead Revisited

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