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Symbolism within “Saltburn” (2023)

Since its release in November, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (starring Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi) has been all over the internet for its outlandish scenes, such as the infamous bathtub scene. However, when looking more closely at the film, there are a lot of references to classical mythology that may be missed at first glance. 

“Saltburn” (2023) was written and directed by Emerald Fenell, who is known for directing “Promising Young Woman,” as well as playing  Camilla Parker-Bowles in “The Crown” (2019-2020) and Midge in “Barbie” (2023). Classified by IMDb as a comedy/drama/thriller, Saltburn is the story of an alleged scholarship student at Oxford University (played by Barry Keoghan) who is drawn into the world of the extremely wealthy Catton family by Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi) and ends up spending the summer at their estate where horrifying events begin to unfurl. With its beautiful cinematography which I found reminiscent of “Call Me By Your Name”, and a plot similar to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Saltburn” has a lot going for it. It also has a good soundtrack, so good that it has repopularized the early 2000s song “Murder on the Dance Floor” by Sophie Ellis-Bextor. While there has been a lot of criticism surrounding “Saltburn”, specifically around its lewd scenes, the film has a ton of elements that make it a fun thing to unpack. In my viewing of “Saltburn,” I took particular interest in the references to classical antiquity that are throughout the film. As a disclaimer, this article will be spoiling the film, as it is impossible to unpack all of the references without talking about the finale so if you have yet to see “Saltburn,” I highly recommend watching it before continuing your read. 

“Saltburn” is filled with endless references to Shakespeare, other films, Gothic stories etc. If I were to explain them all, it would make this article way too long, so instead I am going to focus on its references to classical mythology, specifically the story of the Minotaur and Iccarus. 

The most standout references to classical mythology within Saltburn surround Jacob Elordi’s character, Felix Catton’s death. During the party thrown at the Saltburn estate towards the end of the movie, we see Oliver enter a maze with a statue of the Minotaur at the center. There have been many connections drawn to the fact that the maze appears to symbolize Oliver’s mind and the manipulation of the Catton family that he has planned out. In mythology, the Minotaur is a creature that has the head and tail of a bull with the body of a man and is the son of King Minos of Crete. In Book eight of “Metamorphoses” by Ovid, he describes the Minotaur’s imprisonment within a Labyrinth created by Daedalus, a skillful architect: “Here (King) Minos confined his monster son, half man, half bull, / and fed him twice on the blood of Athenian youths and maidens, /chosen by lot as tribute exacted at nine year intervals” (Ovid, 302). This description of the Minotaur displays the ways the creature benefited from human suffering and sacrifice. In “Saltburn,” Fenell gives viewers hints to the fact that the Minotaur and Oliver are extremely similar. The first hint in the film is that at the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party, Oliver wears horns, mirroring the horns atop the Minotaur’s head. Similarly, the statue of the Minotaur in “Saltburn” is  naked, holding an animal that it has torn in half. The statue is symbolic of what Oliver intends to do with the Catton family: rip them apart. And throughout the film Oliver is shown undressing in times when he wants to impress the Catton’s, mirroring the Minotaur’s nakedness. Throughout the film, Oliver  directly benefits from human suffering like the Minotaur. He metaphorically and physically consumes each member of the Catton family until he inevitably takes over the estate when no one is left at the end of the film. Felix Catton dies directly next to the statue in the center of the maze, which displays how he was at the center of Oliver’s plans and died at the hands of the Minotaur. In addition to Oliver’s relation to the Minotaur there is another character that fits directly into the mythology: Felix Catton. At the same party Felix is wearing golden wings that are very reminiscent of the wings of Icarus,the son of Daedalus who created the labyrinth in which the Minotaur resides. In the myth of Icarus, his father Daedalus created for himself and his son wings made out of wax to escape off the island on which they were imprisoned. Icarus was warned by his father not to fly too close to the sun as his wings would “be scorched by fire”(Ovid, 304). However, “when all the adventurous flying went to Icarus’ head” during their escape Icarus indeed flew too close to the sun and perished (Ovid, 305). The myth of Icarus is a tragic one and his fate is similar to that of Felix’s. However, instead of the sun being Oliver although he is the one to actually kill Felix, the sun that inevitably leads to Felix’s death is Saltburn itself. Throughout the film, Felix is constantly shown covered by sunlight. He also actually plays with fire by constantly bringing people back to his estate that he perceives as projects, discarding them when he is done with them. These actions are similar to Icarus because he got too comfortable and it “went to (his) head.” In bringing Oliver back to Saltburn, Felix was flying too close to the sun and it ended up burning him. 

The best kinds of films are those that you can break down and create theories about. While the classical symbolism is some of the more popular imagery within Saltburn there is so much more to digest within the film. And in comparing Felix and Oliver to famous characters from mythology instead of answering our questions, it raises new ones.

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