Saltburn Was Never About the Cum, It Was All About the Puke
Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film got zero Oscar noms, maybe because the Acadamy focused too closely on the cum & grave-fucking and not enough on all the vomit.
The Film Academy clearly didn’t enjoy Saltburn as much as the rest of us. Oscar nominations were announced this morning and, in spite of the internet’s collective love-to-hate (or hate-to-love) fixation on the Brideshead Revisited x Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” collab no one asked for, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore movie didn’t receive a single Academy Award nomination. This follows Saltburn being completely shut out of SAG award nominations and receiving just two nominations at the Golden Globes; though the film eked out 5 nods from the BAFTAs, receiving nominations for Outstanding British Film, Original Score, Leading Actor, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress.
While studios will spend the next few weeks campaigning for Oppenheimer and Barbie, I have a “for your consideration” of my own about Saltburn’s Oscar-worthy use of bodily fluid. And I’m not talking about the bathtub cum-water.
During Saltburn’s two-hour and seven-minute run, vomit or the act of vomiting is shown on screen seven times and is implied once. Discussion of vomit or vomiting occurs on screen another five times. To put it plainly, Saltburn is a pukefest. As shocking, revolting, sexy, and predatory as Oliver (Keoghan) “guzzling” his friend Felix’s (Elordi) bathtub-cum water straight out of the drain is, it only happens once. In the world of Saltburn, cum is just cum. But the vomit is weightier, and in my opinion, much more deserving of our attention.
So buckle up, pop a Zofran, and let’s wade into the sick of it.
Beauty and extravagance go hand-in-hand with foulness in Saltburn, and it often physically manifests as vomit. At Oliver’s Saltburn birthday bash, a woman dressed as a fairy retches into a fountain, and the hand of a cleaner wipes chunks from a hardwood toilet seat the next morning. Throughout Ollie’s stay, we learn the fashionable Venetia struggles with bulimia (or as her mother calls it “fingers for pudding”). And when the coroner rolls Felix’s body past the family, Elspeth gags up shepherd’s pie while sitting in Saltburn’s grand dining room. By pairing the sublime and the grotesque together quite literally ad nauseam, we learn it’s impossible to bask in Saltburn’s grandeur without also suffering from its decadence. And, in the most physical way possible, Fennell seems to suggest that living with this extreme wealth is causing the Cattons and their guests to sour and rot from the inside out.
And no one is more innerly putrid than Oliver Quick.
The first time vomit appears in the movie is in conjunction with what Fennell has called Oliver’s biggest lie. The morning after Felix ditches Oliver to go to the pub with other friends (leaving Ollie to get wasted by himself), Ollie wakes up in his room at Oxford to vomit spewed all over his sink. Then, his mom calls and Oliver uses it as an opportunity to snatch back Felix’s attention. He arrives at Felix’s room, weeping and pathetic, and tells Felix that his poor, addicted father has unexpectedly died. In reality, we later learn, his parents are alive and well in their upper-middle-class suburb.
As shocking, revolting, sexy, and predatory as Keoghan “guzzling” Felix’s bathtub-cum water straight out of the drain is, it only happens once.
In the next scene, Oliver brings up puke to worm his way into an invite to Felix’s titular family manor. After the pair honor Ollie’s late father by throwing a rock into an on-campus rivulet (which coincidentally lands in a water-logged pile of refuse caked in puke), Ollie reveals he won’t go home for the summer. “You know the first time I felt the inside of my mum’s throat? I was eight. My dad told me I had to stick my fingers in to make her sick, otherwise she’d die in her sleep,” Ollie lies. “So ‘home’ doesn’t mean the same for me as it does for you, Felix.” The audience can see the lightbulb go off in Felix’s head in real time.
“Well, why don’t you come home with me? Come to Saltburn,” the rich boy offers, setting in motion the events that would lead to his family’s demise.
It isn’t until later that Felix’s fate is officially sealed. Upon discovering that Oliver’s claims of poverty are false, Felix rebuffs him once and for all. Dejected and angry, Ollie poisons him in the hedge maze with a bottle of champagne. (Clue vibes, anyone?) As Felix drinks from the bottle, Oliver secretly shoves his fingers down his throat and retches onto the manicured grass. The next day, Elspeth discovers Felix’s body in the maze—but Oliver isn’t done with the Cattons yet. In Saltburn’s final act, he murders Venetia, gets Farleigh cut off, extorts Sir James, and then lies in wait. After Sir James’ death, Oliver returns to Saltburn as Elspeth’s heir and caretaker, and…takes care of her he does. After incapacitating Elspeth enough for her to require a respirator, Oliver wrenches the breathing tube from her esophagus in one final, projectile-vomit adjacent flourish. Cue “Murder on the Dancefloor.”
By the end of the film, the Venn Diagram of Oliver’s actions and puke is essentially a circle, forcing the audience to look at the moral degradation and the base evilness he either descends into – or maybe has been holding inside himself all along. Either way, the bathtub cum-water could never.
Granted, as far as I can tell, Emerald Fennell hasn’t actually said whether Saltburn’s pukefest was intentional or if it was meant to symbolize anything deeper about being disgustingly rich. In what she has said, the throw-up had more practical uses: to create shock value and authentically display college life. “I mean, the vomit in the sink is really down to the last chunk, personally inspired,” Fennell told BuzzFeed about the first puke scene. In another interview, Fennell said the puke in Ollie’s sink was a technique to distract the audience from his phone call with his mom and “plot device more than anything else.”
Alternatively, if Letterboxd reviewers are to be believed, all the puke in Saltburn (and every other disgusting detail) could just be Emerald Fennell being a plain old “sicko.” And perhaps that is true. Fennell did say in a video for Tumblr that her movie had to be “visceral,” “uncomfortable,” “sexy,” and “queasy.” (Queasy? Sounds like something someone who used vomit to symbolize the inner rot of the rich in their latest movie would say…) But if that’s the case, who’s the bigger sicko here: Fennell for making Saltburn or the rest of us for so eagerly guzzling it all down?
The least we could all do is deem the barf just as discourse-worthy as the bathtub cum-water and the grave-fucking. Sure, you can’t commodify or glamorize them in the same way. (I don’t think anyone wants a Barry Keoghan puke candle.) But I don’t think it’s enough to just gag at Saltburn’s puke. Only in talking about it can we finally choke down the film’s essential message—one that is honestly all the stronger sans a golden statuette.