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Palissy and the Pre-Raphaelites: the classical artists that leave their mark on Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn

By Katie Gillespie

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Love it or hate it, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (2023) has been the topic on everyone’s lips since it hit streaming services in December. I, thankfully, avoided making the grave error of suggesting the film for family viewing over Christmas. However, I know several people who were not quite so fortunate. As I came away from watching the film, I was left dwelling on its aesthetic quality. Certain stills stayed stuck in my vision, much in the same way that two or three particular artworks will after a visit to an exhibition. The beautiful ones I let linger, the more grotesque I willed to block out. 


The painterly composition of the film was, of course, a purposeful choice by its production team. For the cinematographer Linus Sandgren, it was intended to reflect ‘the way paintings are composed in a classical way.’ Set largely at the eponymous fictional estate of the Catton family, the world Saltburn occupies is rich in artistic references. This richness also emerges extra-diegetically, guiding the stylistic choices of the filmmakers. The aristocratic backdrop to the film sets the stage for a visual meditation on the interplay between privilege and “high” culture; an interplay which comes to a head over a set of plates by the 16th-century Huguenot ceramicist, Bernard Palissy.  

Still from Saltburn, 2023, directed by Emerald Fennell, courtesy of Amazon Studios 

Watching Saltburn was the first time I had been introduced to Palissy’s works. With my interest sufficiently piqued, a quick search brought up a dish sold by Christies last October. Labelled as a piece by either Palissy or from his workshop, it fetched nearly $500,000 at auction, exceeding its estimate tenfold. The value of a Palissy work is, clearly, not to be sniffed at and such works are accessible only to the ultra-wealthy. The exclusivity of “high” art manifests in Saltburn when its protagonist, Oliver Quick, frames Farleigh, a relative staying with the Cattons, for the theft of the family’s Palissy ceramics.


In one scene, Farleigh highlights the Cattons will readily spend an exorbitant amount on a party for Oliver whilst expecting that he, their family member, seeks financial help with his 'begging bowl' (Saltburn, 2023) outstretched. He hints that racism lies behind this preferential treatment: whereas Farleigh is mixed-race, the Cattons and Oliver are white. Exploiting the ensuing tension, Oliver strategically despatches of his competition for the family's attention with the very ‘begging bowl’ his rival holds. Felix Catton clarifies, ‘[Farleigh] emailed Sotheby's claiming he stumbled upon a Palissy plate. What an idiot. He must have known Dad went to school with the chairman!’ (Saltburn, 2023) Felix’s statement speaks volumes on the perpetuation of privilege and the unattainability of so-called “high” art for those who reside outside of said circles of privilege. In Saltburn “high” art is a concept which exists merely to benefit those with access to it. Perhaps their world is not so far removed from our own. 


Felix and his younger sister, Venetia, discuss Farleigh’s theft against the ‘silly ponds and all the frivolous nature’ of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, a key reference point for Saltburn’s production designer, Suzy Davies. In one shot, Venetia assumes the role of a 2007 Ophelia, her bleach blonde hair skimming a lily-pad strewn pond. The visual correlation between Venetia and Millais’s subject portends her own watery demise, a suicide staged by Oliver. Yet, for the time being, the aesthetic lingers on the sepia-toned summer the characters are experiencing. We are only at the beginning of the film’s horrifying descent.

Left: Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, courtesy of Tate 

Right: Still from Saltburn, 2023, directed by Emerald Fennell, courtesy of Amazon Studios 

After the death of Felix, the rest of the Catton family sits down for lunch in a room shrouded by the light streaming through its red curtains. Paralysed by the previous sequence of events, we watch as Venetia pours an entire bottle of red wine into her cup. As the wine overflows, it leaves a stain suggestive of spilt blood. Speaking of the function of blood in works by Caravaggio, art historian Angelo Lo Conte explains, ‘the red fluid results as a powerful and dramatic weapon used to shock the viewer and, at the same time, express an intimate and anguished condition of pain.’ Without this context, you could believe that Lo Conte has described Venetia’s final scene in the film. 


When it comes to artistic references, ‘Caravaggio is the main player in this film,’ says Suzie Davies. The technique for which he was famed, chiaroscuro, dominates the lighting decisions made in the film. With the room’s curtains reflected in a mirror behind Venetia, Fennell’s choice to shroud the dining room in red light directly recalls the red curtain in the background of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599). There are certain parallels to draw between the stories of Venetia and Judith. In her final scene, Venetia enters Oliver’s space to take a bath in his bathroom. She capitalizes on the desire between the two to verbally ambush him, identifying his true nature. ‘You’ve made your holes in everything. You’ll eat us from the inside out.’ Her prophecy will ring true. It will not be Oliver’s blood spilt over the sides of the bathtub, but her own. 

Left: Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1599, courtesy of Palazzo Barberini 

Right: Still from Saltburn, 2023, directed by Emerald Fennell, courtesy of Amazon Studios 


For the makers of Saltburn, their work is a painting. By the end of the film, their artwork is one that ‘is melting under the heat of the story and the goings-on.’ Art moulds the world in which Saltburn takes place. It acts as a catalyst, facilitating the erection of boundaries dividing the privileged from the masses. As Oliver breaches those boundaries over the course of the film, its makers begin to chip away the paint from their carefully constructed surface to reveal something more monstrous underneath.  


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