Emerald Fennell’s Grand Millennial Movie Master Plan

Before Barbie, the most subversively pink product to combust its way through Hollywood of late was Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a pastel-hued rape-revenge thriller with a sting in its tail. Fennell loves to manipulate cinematic tropes into discomfiting shapes. Her debut feature, which starred Carey Mulligan as a med-school dropout on a mission to ensnare predatory men, layered jagged themes—trauma, violence, female rage—with beguiling, poppy visuals. Promising Young Woman, while alarming some critics, was widely praised as a fascinating excavation of rape culture. And yet, by winking in the film at well-known touchstones of the aughts, Fennell seemed to be doing something else too: digging into recent history until she found the rotten foundations underneath.

The movie debuted at Sundance in January 2020. Over the course of about 18 months, Fennell went into lockdown with her baby, embarked on a vigorous press campaign conducted almost entirely over Zoom, became the first British woman to be nominated for a directing Oscar, got pregnant with her second child, and then won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the stilted, socially distanced 2021 ceremony in Los Angeles. None of it felt quite real. Her experience of the film’s success was mediated mostly through screens. Like many other people, she sought out creative outlets in isolation; rather than baking banana bread or learning to needlepoint, though, she art-directed and photographed herself in a Valley of the Dolls–style shoot for W magazine, playing a character who was part Factory girl, part murderous fembot.

After the movie’s release, Fennell started receiving offers, enticing ones, from “people you’ve wanted to work with your whole life,” she told me over coffee at a hotel in London earlier this fall. But the pandemic, and being at home, allowed her to avoid what she saw as distracting temptations. Instead, she quietly finished writing her second project, the new country-house thriller Saltburn. At first watch, I couldn’t quite trace a path from Promising Young Woman, a movie that hews so closely to the female experience that it stayed lodged in my brain for weeks after, to Saltburn, a Gothic, morbidly funny film that technically fails the Bechdel Test. Having preoccupied herself for much of her career with stories about women—the second season of Killing Eve, for which she served as showrunner; her novel Monsters; and a sizable number of projects that never made it off the page—Fennell wanted to do something different.

Both films share Fennell’s tendency to contrast the grand with the intimate—formal, meticulously arranged tableaus followed by shots so close up that you can almost smell them. She also makes a case for herself as an auteur firmly rooted in Millennial culture: an artist whose aesthetic feels as informed by the bubblegum, color-drenched landscapes of Sweet Valley High and She’s All That as by erudite directorial idols such as Catherine Breillat and Peter Greenaway. Both movies, she said, “share a preoccupation with genre, and how you can abuse it, squeeze it out.” With Promising Young Woman, Fennell juxtaposed its rape-revenge plot with Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and a supporting cast ripped from The O.C., Friday Night Lights, and Veronica Mars. With Saltburn, which is set in England around 2006, she wanted to replicate that era just a beat before it becomes cool and nostalgic again.

The movie follows Oliver (played by Barry Keoghan), a northern-English first-year student at Oxford who becomes infatuated with Felix (Jacob Elordi), the dazzling, frivolous heir to an aristocratic family whose stately home gives the film its title. Fennell has long been fascinated by outsider narratives such as Brideshead Revisited and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, and she’s drawn in particular to the yearning at their core—a kind of want so intense that it can easily turn dangerous. “When you look at online trolls, so much of the root of that is desire,” Fennell said. “So much of it is a furious kind of weird death-love … the fetishy relationship that we have with the things that we want, and then the way we immediately deflect that into disgust.” Saltburn’s exploration of that psychology seems pulled directly from classic 20th-century novels—Oliver is a character who could fit into virtually any historical moment—even as its visual preoccupation with the aughts alludes to that decade’s powerful influence on our understanding of intimacy and longing.

In person, Fennell is a mix of beguiling, patrician charisma (she played Camilla Parker Bowles in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown) and cheerful deviance. Toward the end of our meeting, she leaned forward, lowered her voice slightly, and offered to tell me the best way to kill my husband; a few minutes earlier, she’d apologized for making a gesture that she thought made her look like she was acting out the “I’m a Little Teapot” nursery rhyme. In her 2015 novel, Monsters, which she wrote between seasons of playing Nurse Patsy in the BBC show Call the Midwife, Fennell describes a body that washes ashore as being “like a chicken leg that had been stewed too long”; each time the locals tried to collect it, “a piece of sodden flesh slid off the bone.” On the page, her mordant sensibility can be unnerving, but on film, paired with her precise eye for both painterly staging and aughts-era ugliness—she insisted, to the dismay of Saltburn’s male producers, that Felix have an eyebrow piercing—it entices as much as it appalls. (After a screening I went to, a woman outside shook her head and blurted out, “Dark as fuck!” to no one in particular.)

When she was working on the script for Saltburn, Fennell toyed with the idea of setting it on a moneyed American campus—less Brideshead, more The Secret History. She concluded that the story would be stronger the better she knew it, and that the particular intricacies of the English class system were more loaded. “The thing about these worlds is that they’re so tricksy, so designed,” she said. The rules “are constantly shifting, constantly different from place to place.” A particularly poignant moment in the movie sees Oliver, invited to spend the summer at Felix’s ancestral home, show up at the iron-wrought gates with a wheelie suitcase, a tiny figure facing an impenetrable fortress of accreted privilege. At breakfast, he humiliates himself by not knowing the right way to ask for eggs.

Fennell grew up in London; her father is the jeweler Theo Fennell, and her mother is a writer whose instincts, Fennell has said, are even darker than hers. Fennell started acting as a way to get out of organized sports at school, and was spotted by an agent in a play when she was at Oxford. Her family is eminently well connected: The actor Richard E. Grant, who plays Sir James Catton, the patriarch of Saltburn, is a family friend, as is the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who commissioned Fennell to write the book for a musical adaptation of Cinderella that premiered in 2021. Fennell’s web of family ties is part of what makes Saltburn’s theory of privilege so intriguing. If she is on a particular side, shall we say, it isn’t the Cattons’. “It was really important to me,” she said, “that if this is a vampire story, they’re the vampires.” Fennell admits she could draw “a pretty clear line from my own personality to Elspeth,” Felix’s theatrical mother (Rosamund Pike), who has a phobic aversion to unattractiveness and paraphrases her daughter’s eating disorder as “fingers for pudding.” Saltburn, like the Jordan Peele film Get Out, is a horror story in which the monster is sociological; it’s been inside us all along. Keoghan’s unsettling performance, which switches modes constantly, is indelible, Fennell thinks, because he’s fully animal in an otherwise bloodless, highly artificial world.

Elordi’s Felix, by contrast, is a character more like the genial-seeming bros in Promising Young Woman: as handsome as he is weak. In one scene at Oxford, he picks a conquest at random and then, in Fennell’s description, “takes her away with a slap on the arse without even speaking to her or looking at her.” She wanted Felix’s character to make people think about “the limits of the lies when it comes to seduction,” and how most men, rather than being heroes or villains, tend to be likable guys “who can’t quite be good enough” when they’re required to be. In real life, Fennell has been in a relationship with her husband, the producer Chris Vernon, for almost 20 years, allowing her an emotional continuity and stability that free up her imagination: “I was always with him, which meant that so much of my brain wasn’t, I don’t know, fretting. It does give you so much time to devote to the other world. Because really the only thing that keeps me sane is being in the other world.”

When Promising Young Woman came out, Fennell was feted for having directed it while heavily pregnant, an experience that she said was a breeze compared to shooting Saltburn with two young children. Most of the movie was filmed in Northamptonshire, on location. “And so I rented a house five minutes away, and was like, ‘It’s amazing, I can get the kids to bed every night,’” she said. “And then, of course, what it meant was that I had to put the kids to bed every night.” She’d wake up at five in the morning, go straight to set, come home for bathtime: “It was just a new kind of exhaustion. I think I’ve been running on adrenaline for five years now.” Even more challenging than those logistics was what she described as the “Gothic intensity” of motherhood, its lacerating vulnerability. (She had a cameo in Barbie as Midge, the discontinued pregnant doll with a detachable belly.) “The world’s way of dealing with it is to pretend it’s this nice thing,” Fennell said. “Everything’s soft. Everything’s pink. And it’s so fucking hard-core. It’s death metal.”

This same specific tension—between visual sumptuousness and narrative brutality—undergirds her filmmaking style. Her creative landscape is as macabre as that of David Lynch or Breillat, the French filmmaker whose 1999 movie, Romance, helped kick off an art-house obsession with extreme sex and violence. (Fennell thought a lot, during Saltburn, about Breillat’s belief that sex is a dance between beauty and revulsion.) Fennell’s work is also governed, though, by the sense memories of being alive in the ’90s and 2000s: the way she felt when she saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the particular clickety-clack of the cheap accessories that she has Felix’s haughty sister, Venetia, wear in Saltburn, to make her less intimidating. For the Oxford scenes, Fennell wanted armpit hair, sweat, and visible pores, as well as Livestrong wristbands, Bic lighters, and hot-pink velour Juicy Couture sweatpants. The plasticized sparkle makes the language, the interplay among the characters, only more loaded. The themes and formulaic conventions Fennell works with might be familiar, but the vibes she evokes seem intended to hook us more intimately into her toxic world, one gleaming detail or evocative needle drop at a time.

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