Tuesday, November 21, 2023

“Saltburn” and “The House of Sand and Fog”: Location, Location, Location

It’s perhaps appropriate that one of Emerald Fennell’s major acting credits is the role of Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix miniseries The Crown. There’s something entirely apt about a woman with a yen for the perverse playing a real-life English villainess, opposite Emma Corrin’s dewy Princess Diana. As a writer/director too, Fennell seems to gravitate toward the ominous and the grotesque. Her first feature as a director, Promising Young Woman, is an often-macabre film about a revenge fantasy that becomes all too real. In 2021, it wowed critics and audiences (and me), landing five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Fennell herself was singled out for two nominations, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. She took home the golden statuette for the latter category. I discovered she’d also played a tiny role in the film, as the uncredited host of a Blowjob Lips Make-Up Video Tutorial.

 Moving on from that triumph, Fennell has now given us Saltburn, a film seemingly made for those who’d enjoy tearing wings off of butterflies and torturing puppies. When I watched it in a large L.A. auditorium, it elicited nervous giggles and guffaws, but I’m not sure the audience was having fun. We knew from the start that despite the film’s cheery Oxford opening scenes there were going to be gloomy times ahead. For one thing, the film’s central character is played by Barry Keoghan, who took an ominous role in The Killing of the Sacred Deer and was the pathetically lovelorn young man who comes to no good end in The Banshees of Inisherin. Small, pockmarked, and dour (though he has lovely blue eyes), Keoghan plays Oliver, a brilliant but lonely new student who’s taken under the wing of the gregarious and gorgeous Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When a family tragedy for Oliver evolves into an invitation to spend the summer at Felix’s fabulous country estate, we think we know where the movie is going. Turns out we don’t.

 Yes, we’ve all seen films in which a stately home plays a central role. Think Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, even Rebecca’s Manderley. We’re primed to feel sorry for the outsider who just doesn’t fit into the world of wealth and privilege, with its sneering butlers, fancy dress balls, and portraits of princely ancestors in the hallways. But as matters get more and more grotesque, we’re no longer sure who deserves our pity. I suspect Fennell enjoys our confusion, because the clues don’t exactly add up. She’s more interested in dark jokes, like Oliver skulking through a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed birthday celebration wearing an embroidered jacket and a pair of antlers on his head (he’s horny, get it?). And of course Oliver’s intimate involvement with the Catton family leads to a cruel final Twist.

 There aren’t any jokes at all in House of Sand and Fog, a brilliantly executed 2003 drama that centers on home ownership. The house in question, located in a seaside community near San Francisco, was inherited by Cathy (Jennifer Connelly), who’s dealing with marital and drinking  problems. When she loses the house through some sloppy county legal errors, it’s quickly purchased by an exiled Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley) and his family. Cathy vows revenge, and is helped by a married deputy sheriff who falls for her in a big way. This is a heart-breaking tale in which everyone (mostly) means well, but no one comes out well in he end. The story, based on an Andre DuBus III novel, is complicated but never confusing. And if you’re human, you might shed a tear or two for the fools these mortals be.


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