What Happens In The ’Saltburn’ Bathtub Scene And Why It Matters (2024)

What Happens In The ’Saltburn’ Bathtub Scene And Why It Matters (1)

Jason TabrysFeatures Editor

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Reactions to writer/director Emerald Fennell‘s Promising Young Woman follow-up, Saltburn, have been interesting, with The Guardian asking if it’s the most divisive film of the year and The Mary Sue wondering why so many men seem to hate it. To some, this upstairs/downstairs satire with Talented Mr. Ripley vibes hits the mark with a mix of obsession, outrageousness, and obnoxiously wealthy and pretty people. To others, the film comes off as a self-satisfied mess with an obvious twist that they totally saw coming. They really want you to know that they saw that twist coming.

The one scene everyone is talking about, whether they like or loathe the film, is the bathtub scene. What is its significance to the larger story and is it an over-the-top device conjured to spur controversy and attention for the film? We’re going to dive into those questions, but first let’s break down the scene in question, which starts with Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton helping himself to, well, himself, during an oh-so-steamy and solitary soak in the tub while home for break with his ultra-rich family (Saltburn is the name of the English countryside manor where they reside), some hangers-on, and his much poorer friend and school mate, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan).

Peering through the doorway of their shared bathroom (it’s a literal castle with 30 servants, but sure, there are shared bathrooms), Oliver is obviously captivated by the vision of Felix in the throes of self-love, but he’s been nursing an all-consuming obsession with more than a few obstacles in his way, so the voyeuristic pleasure of spying on Felix in the most private of moments must suffice. Until it can’t.

Once Felix is done with his splish-splash-splosion and out of range, Oliver enters the bathroom and begins to hover over the drain before pressing his lips to the cast iron tub (a guess) to get a taste of Felix’s bathwater, et al.

The implication is, of course, that tasting Felix (who is kind and flirty at times, but otherwise not interested) is as close as Oliver can get to being with him.

Fennell is doing a few things here: tagging an exclamation point onto Oliver’s consuming desires and asking the audience to be a voyeur and question any stirrings it unlocks as we watch this erotic act of total submission to Oliver’s sad, unfulfilled longings – slow and then complete.

It’s so easy to feel bad for Oliver in this moment (despite the obvious violation), even if you’re not quite able to conjure memories of unrequited love’s desperate influence or envision going to such slurpy lengths. There’s something in there you can relate to.

In Mike Ryan’s interview with Fennell for Uproxx, she spoke to the way the pandemic-prime era of isolation influenced this film that’s set in 2006: “[the] sort of longing to touch and what happens when you can’t touch the thing you want to touch, what that does to you. It makes you completely insane.”

Still, could you accomplish the same thing if Oliver had picked up Felix’s sweater and given it a whiff? No, Fennell clearly wanted to put us in a specific lane of thought with an act that, later, might have some more significance. But for that dissection, we need to throw up a big shiny spoiler warning for anyone who has not seen the film yet. Sorry.

For everyone else, let’s throw on some tiny demon horns and party.

As you know, this whole movie drives towards the realization that Oliver has been pulling strings and drugging angelic richlings to death. Lined up all nice and in a row, Felix, his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), father Sir James (Richard Grant), and mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), are all buried in the yard while Oliver has a dick-swinging dance fest in his freshly inherited castle, the product of burrowing into the family like some kind of parasite a little before and a lot after Felix was the first Catton to fall.

The preceding flashbacks tell the whole story about Oliver’s plan, how long he’d been working Felix, and the strings he pulled to get this result. A confession to Elsbeth on her deathbed is one more twist of the knife: Oliver both loved and hated Felix.

Jumping back to the bathtub scene, that act of slurping someone’s bathwater (+) feels more in the love/desire column, but when paired with the scene where Oliver luxuriates in fingering and going down on Venetia during her period and you see that he literally wanted to devour these people in every possible way. Actually shocked Fennell didn’t dive into literal cannibalism, but ya gotta save something for the sequel.

The scene with Oscar at Felix’s grave is another recurring point of discussion, and I kinda get it on the surface. It’s visually and emotionally powerful, a man denied the man he most desired and desperate from grief, pulling down his pants and having sex with the pile of dirt atop his would-be lover’s grave. But it’s also kinda confusing with what we know about Oliver’s actual wants.

As with the other supposedly over-the-top scenes, there are reasons that justify that (albeit big) choice. Maybe Fennell wants us to question the hierarchy between love and hate with regard to Oliver’s feelings toward Felix at the end while also waving a big red flag that indicates that Oliver is fully insane. Maybe she wanted to add a tinge of sadness to the triumphant naked dance party of one at the end. Or maybe that scene and the bathtub scene really are shocking for the sake of being shocking and sparking people to leave the theater with something to talk about. Either way, I’m good.

So many filmmakers paint by numbers, giving us what they (a big word encompassing many people) think we want. But it’s absolutely wonderful to be pushed out of our comfort zones either for narrative purposes or even just to drop a few jaws.

These sharp turns push some people out of the story, but it pulls others in closer. Because now we’re off the rails and less likely to slip into that mode. You know, the one where we lazily watch things thinking we already know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen because of how zapped our attention spans are and how samey our stories are. It feels like a loveless marriage between us and art, going through the motions, a murder-suicide with time. I hate that mode.

But Emerald Fennell gets it. All evidence from her work shows she’s more for the people who want to feel something — love, rage, befuddlement, whatever — when leaving a theater, enlisted in an army whose mission is to defend or even tear down a film. She’s willing to take chances and risk making you want to tear down her films because the story matters, not the response or what the response does for her career. It’s fantastic.

Being a provocateur and a good filmmaker aren’t mutually exclusive titles, sometimes they can be the same thing.

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