Just how queer is Saltburn?

Can Saltburn really be considered a queer film? Cast and crew weigh in.

A still from queer film Saltburn. It shows Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan as their characters sitting side by side on a couch. They both wear white dress shirts and black dickie bows.
Image: Chiabella James/Prime Video

*This article contains spoilers*

Despite its release being several months ago in November 2023, the grip Saltburn has on Gen Z and Millennial culture is firm: the 2001 ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ hit which features on the soundtrack has re-entered the UK charts, reaching number one on the UK Dance Singles Chart, and a queer club in New York even threw a Saltburn themed party with “bathwater” cocktails. But is Saltburn queer?

The film follows Oliver, played by Dublin-born actor Barry Keoghan, a working-class outcast in Oxford. He develops a growing obsession with his classmate Felix (Jacob Elordi) and his aristocratic, eccentric and stylish family – an obsession which leads to deadly consequences and quite a lot of homoerotic longing, bathwater slurping and er… grave sex.

That’s right, grave sex. In one of the more notorious scenes of the movie, Oliver is seen stripping down to the skin and lying down on top of Felix’s grave as he begins to thrust in between gasps and sobs. It’s a powerful scene that speaks to the farthest point of infatuation that Oliver has been driven to through anguish, grief and a powerful desire.

The Irish actor spoke to Variety about the scene, revealing it was a collaboration between the director, Emerald Fennell, and himself. He commented, “I wanted to see what the next level of obsession was. So I asked for a closed set. I wanted to see where it went.” Not only was it Keoghan’s idea, but it was improvised.

While necrophilia is not an accurate representation of queer desire, it speaks to Oliver’s complete obsession with Felix, whether either to become him or be with him, and reveals the extremes that one-sided desire can lead to.

When asking if Saltburn is queer, it’s also essential to talk about the infamous bathtub scene. Oliver watches through a slightly ajar bathroom door as Felix masturbates in the bathtub. If that wasn’t queer enough, viewers watch on the edge of their seats as the film cuts to Oliver alone standing in the bath as he slowly lowers himself and begins to slurp the dregs of the bathwater up, containing, you guessed it, Felix’s semen.

It doesn’t get more queer than that, and one Letterboxd fan even compared the bathtub scene to the infamous peach scene in Call Me by Your Name, suggesting it “does for bathtubs what call me by your name does for peaches”.

But the complexity of Oliver’s desire is also revealed in the little details. In the minute changes in facial expression, in close-up frames of Oliver’s face as he watches Felix sprawling out and smoking on the floor of his Oxford room, or reading Harry Potter and sucking a popsicle on a hot day.


Speaking to Vogue about Oliver and Felix’s relationship, the Irish actor commented, “I don’t know whether he was in love. I think he was really confused. I don’t know whether he wanted to be Felix, or he loved the idea of being like Felix, and he loved the aura around Felix and the attraction and how magnetising he was.”

Arguably it’s moments like these, alongside bathtub scene, which do not portray any sex but feel incredibly intimate to watch, that cement the queerness of the film.

But is Oliver’s desire for Felix authentic, or is it more about becoming him, having what he has, and thus, using sex and control on this family as a means to an end?

While these two characters never have sex or even an on-screen kiss (although there is rumoured to be a deleted kissing scene) the film is full of moments that are without question filled with homoerotic desire. But Oliver’s sexuality as such is never revealed – though he has sexual interactions with Felix’s sister Venetia, and Farleigh, their cousin.

When asked by PinkNews about whether or not Saltburn is queer, the director Emerald Fennell replied, “I think absolutely”.

Speaking to Attitude, the director further stated that Saltburn is “undeniably about same-sex desire”. She added, “All sex, and all love is very complicated and often is fluid and isn’t limited to either a person or gender. That’s how I feel.”

This is reflected in the film in that no one is given a distinct sexual identity, and many of the characters’ sexualities appear as fluid and changing over time.

We see Oliver have sex with people of a variety of genders. Felix, while appearing straight for all intents and purposes, definitely shares some tender and romantically charged moments with Oliver, and Farleigh’s sexuality is never labelled.

Even Elspeth, Felix’s mother, announces in a rather paradoxical one-liner, “I was a lesbian for a while you know, but it was all just too wet for me in the end.”

This reluctance to label is precisely the strength of Saltburn. In this world, attraction is not reduced to tired narratives of gender and sexuality. It’s a world where “everyone wants everyone,” and is less about any specific orientation or label, rather about the craving itself and how far one character will go to fulfill it.

It falls outside any heteronormative trope, and many of the characters act in unexpected ways when moved by desire. Albeit not an accurate portrayal of queer experience, which arguably was never the aim, Saltburn plays with our expectations and presumptions to tell a dark tale of desire that cements it in the canon of LGBTQ+ cinema.

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