Did Saltburn’s Oliver really love Felix? Unpacking the most divisive ‘queer’ film of the year

Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi in Saltburn.

You’d be forgiven for watching the opening two minutes of Saltburn and assuming Felix and Oliver’s story is set to be a traditional gay tale.

Starring the internet’s current boyfriends Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi as Oliver Quick and Felix Catton, two Oxford students in the early 2000s who forge a friendship, Saltburn exists on the perimeters of queer romance. 

The film’s events are kickstarted when the aristocratic Felix, with his glorious eyebrow piercing, takes pity on Oliver being estranged from his working-class family. Felix invites Oliver to the Catton family’s lavish and eccentric Saltburn estate with open arms.

Emerled Fennell’s darkly comedic thriller, which co-stars Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant – has divided audiences since it arrived in cinemas last year and the chatter has only continued since it became available to stream on Prime Video just before Christmas. So just what’s going on?

Did Oliver love Felix?

It’s that summer with Felix that Oliver reminisces about in Saltburn’s opening monologue: “I wasn’t in love with him. I know everyone thought I was. I wasn’t.

“I loved him. I loved him. I loved him. But was I in love with him?” 

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The last question Oliver poses is what hangs over writer-director Emerald Fennel’s second feature. “Was I in love with him?”

Well, as Oliver delivers this monologue, a montage of the heady summer he and Felix shared plays: Baby girl Felix is lounging in the sun; beads of sweat on his bare neck; taking shots beneath neon lights; and the tall man flashing his irresistible grin.

Jacob Elordi as Felix in Saltburn, it's twilight and Felix's is turning his head towards the camera, smiling.
Jacob Elordi as Felix in Saltburn. (Prime Video)

Excavating his memories, Felix is the apple of Oliver’s eye as he admits to loving the young man but claims he wasn’t in love with him. Yet, as we see, Oliver can’t help but fawn over Felix’s charm, looks, and popularity.

He yearns for Felix’s attention – but does he want to be with Felix, or want to be him?

Their relationship treads the line of infatuation as their connection grows increasingly intense. The rigid borders of straight male friendship crumble under Fennel’s direction, with Oliver watching in awe as Felix sucks a lollipop. Such scenes aren’t played for bro-y humour but linger as moments of seductive physicality. 

Though Oliver may insist he’s not in love with Felix, his incessant need to be by his side points to there being some deeper emotional bearing to their friendship.

Is Saltburn a queer film?

Speaking to PinkNews last year, Fennel shared that she “absolutely” sees her film as a queer thriller.

Fennel also noted that desire is central to the film and that “desire takes every conceivable manifestation, and it’s so important. Of course, [queerness is] part of the very fabric of the film.”

Saltburn – named as such because Fennell believed it sounded like a “sex injury” – balances numerous thematics, some more prominent than others, including class divide, the construction of reality, and desire, but she seems most interested in unpicking the nuances of obsession.

Jacob Elordi as Felix and Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn
Was Oliver in love with Felix? (Prime Video)

The film ruffled feathers following its release last November due to the horny, psychosexual thriller’s more unpredictable scenes that are defined by abundance of nudity, morbidity and homoeroticism. 

Felix and Oliver are practically inseparable at points, sharing a bathroom, dinner jackets, and even a cigarette. Though, Oliver’s fixation becomes all-consuming, literally: Oliver will lap up anything Felix offers… or doesn’t offer. That includes drinking Felix’s dirty bathwater after watching him masturbate in it.

The scene is explicit in its tense, gradually revealing nature, however, Saltburn’s quiet scenes of yearning between the two students are often more relevant to the argument of the film being queer.

Oliver’s desire is overwhelming as he assimilates into the Catton’s world, taking part in their black tie dinners and stripping naked to follow tradition in the long grass fields with Felix as well as Felix’s sister (Alison Oliver) and cousin (Archie Madekwe). 

Is Barry Keoghan’s Oliver gay, straight or queer?

Oliver’s sexual orientation is unlabelled and, ultimately, irrelevant to Saltburn‘s overall message. Yet, the character’s attraction, craving what’s just out of reach, is what drives this film. Things grow particularly thorny as Oliver’s pent-up, angsty lust isn’t isolated. 

Though Oliver may spend his afternoons watching in awe as Felix sucks a lollipop, his simmering sexual tension ruptures beneath the darkness of night. Oliver’s expression of desire manifests as not simply an act of passion but a calculated act to feed his devotion to the Catton family.

Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn, he's topless lying in the grass
Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn. (Prime Video)

Oliver has sexual encounters with both men and women; the former as he mounts Farleigh (Madekwe) in bed and the latter as he performs cunnilingus on Venetia (Oliver) in the garden while she’s on her period – both assertions of power.

Oliver clearly loved what Felix had to offer him and the potential of their relationship, but would Oliver feel the same adoration if Felix wasn’t disgustingly rich? Though Oliver’s attention splinters as he interacts with the Cattons, his draw to Felix never depletes.

To top it all off, a nude Oliver dancing through the grand Saltburn home to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ is the cherry on the cake of Saltburn’s undeniable queer essence.

Saltburn is now available to stream on Prime Video. 

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