There is no shortage of sex scenes in Saltburn, the shamelessly horny dark comedy from filmmaker Emerald Fennell, which opens wide in theaters today. Prudes, be warned: This is not a movie for you. If you can’t handle a little period sex cunnilingus or some casual semen-eating, don’t bother with this one. Because those sex scenes are just warm-ups for Saltburn‘s main event: grave humping.
Here’s the part where I warn you about spoilers: Do not keep reading this article if you haven’t yet seen Saltburn and don’t want to know about the major plot twists. Written and directed by Fennell—who already stirred up controversy with 2020’s Promising Young Woman—Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as a nerdy, quiet college student named Oliver at Oxford University in 2006. Oliver is decidedly not rich, not hot, and not cool, but he longs to be in with the crowd of rich, hot, cool popular kids. He’s especially enamored by the rich, hot, cool kid known as Felix, played by Jacob Elordi. Oliver manages to befriend Felix, despite his social stranding, but then tragedy strikes: Oliver’s deadbeat, alcoholic dad dies. Or at least, that’s what he tells Felix.
Spoiler alert: Oliver is lying. His parents aren’t dirt-poor, drug-addicted degenerates like he told Felix. They’re perfectly nice middle-class folks, and his dad definitely isn’t dead. But Felix buys Oliver’s sob story. Out of pity, Felix invites Oliver to stay with his absurdly wealthy family over the summer, in the huge palace estate known as Saltburn. It’s at Saltburn where it becomes clear to the audience that Oliver is not just a power-hungry little nerd—he’s a certified freak, seven days a week. He spies on his buddy masturbating in the tub, and then slurps up the remnants of his semen from the bath drain. He eats out Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), while she’s on her period and feeds her own blood to her. He gives Felix’s cousin Farliegh (Archie Madekwe), a menacing handjob while threatening him to back off.
But Fennell saves her most scandalous sex scene for last. Second spoiler alert: Felix tragically and mysteriously dies on the night of Oliver’s birthday party. Oliver was the last person to be alone with Felix, and the two of them had a big fight over the fact that Oliver is a freaky little liar, so, yeah, it’s looking pretty suspicious. Yet Oliver seems genuinely heartbroken over his friend’s death. After the funeral, he cries dramatically over Felix’s grave. He throws his body down onto the mound of dirt, his body heaving with sobs. It’s not a performance—there’s not another soul in sight. It’s sincere, full-body grief over losing a person that Oliver saw as his to possess.
For a moment—as Oliver presses his tear-stained face into the freshly dug earth—you don’t think the scene is going to go there. Then you remember what movie you’re watching. Of course it’s going to go there. Oliver strips off his clothes and slowly grinds his pelvis into the dirt. The camera pulls back to give us a wide view of what is going on: That man is humping a grave plot. There’s no question about what is happening. It’s filthy and perverted and messed up and taboo, and that’s what makes it so great.
Oliver’s desire to consume Felix transcends life. He’s still taking unearned pleasure from his beautiful friend, even in his death. Before anyone starts crying about “unnecessary sex scenes,” the scene is necessary, actually, to show the audience that what Oliver felt for Felix was never love. It was infatuation, addiction, and obsession, but Oliver was never the victim. Oliver wanted to own Felix completely, to become him from the inside out. And yes, sex is part of his desire—just one more way to mark Felix as his. When it became clear to Oliver he would lose Felix, he took him away from everyone else, too. But not without staking his claim one last time… by ejaculating on his grave. Talk about adding insult to injury.