Saltburn, Parasite and the class satire industrial complex - Hindustan Times
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Saltburn, Parasite and the class satire industrial complex

Mar 19, 2024 06:43 PM IST

Ironically, capitalising on anti-capitalist sentiment has been quite profitable and the eat-the-rich satires now being regularly cranked out show that class warfare as scripted entertainment, strangely, seems to preserve the status quo

In an early scene from Saltburn, Oxford scholarship student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) goes on the defensive when his classmate Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) criticises his essay for the overuse of the adverb “thus.” Oliver counters that it is lazy to pick apart the style instead of the substance of his writing. Farleigh hits back, “It’s not what you argue but how” — which could be read as a pre-emptive notice from writer-director Emerald Fennell to detractors who may pan her new film for being heavy on style and light on substance. Staying one step ahead of the criticism however cannot neutralise all the calculated choices of empty provocation over pointed satire.

“If there is a rallying cry in Saltburn, it isn’t eat the rich, but beware the lower classes.” (Scene from Saltburn)
“If there is a rallying cry in Saltburn, it isn’t eat the rich, but beware the lower classes.” (Scene from Saltburn)

Though he may sound like a character out of a lost Dickens novel, Oliver Quick is a young striver whose DNA can more likely be traced to Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley. There is the same methodical coldness to how Oliver cons his way into the lavish lives of a wealthy British family. Saltburn arrives at an anxious moment in the eternal — and eternally recycled — conversation about class. Economic inequality is out of control; greed is unbridled; so is ambition. For Oliver and Tom, same as the fictional Kim family in Parasite and the real-life strippers in Hustlers, upward mobility seems like an impossible dream unless you are willing to game the system.

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“When Parasitebecame a globally acclaimed phenomenon, it opened up a new territory for a class satire industrial complex outside of science fiction.” (Scene from Parasite)
“When Parasitebecame a globally acclaimed phenomenon, it opened up a new territory for a class satire industrial complex outside of science fiction.” (Scene from Parasite)

2019 was a big year for class warfare as scripted entertainment: Parasite, Hustlers, Ready or Not and Knives Out all infiltrated the ranks of the rich and privileged to burst their bubble from the inside. Ever since, the widening wealth gap has become fertile pasture to harvest comedies and thrillers of varying satirical potency. 2022 was another big year with Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion and The Menu. Next came Infinity Pool and Saltburn in 2023. TV meanwhile — or HBO in particular — has kept the entertainment rolling with Succession, The Righteous Gemstones and The White Lotus, all of which take great delight in exposing just how disconnected the wealthy are from the rest of the world. It seems we can’t get enough of watching their egos pricked by outsiders and their judgments dulled by generations of fine living.

Politicians tiptoe around the discourse about class like it was lined with eggshells, afraid they might upset the one-percenters funding their campaigns. As always, it is up to artists to rail against the system. But the irony of a revolution being simulated for the screen is artists are railing against the very institution that has sanctioned, bankrolled and promoted their projects. Even a satire with capitalism and all its gatekeepers in its crosshairs is ultimately a product. Capitalising on anti-capitalist sentiment, as it turns out, has been quite profitable. As a character in the 2019 cult hit role-playing game Disco Elysium puts it, “Capital has the ability to subsume all critiques into itself. Even those who would critique capital end up reinforcing it instead.”

Satire can punch up, punch down, punch in any general direction. But a satire targeting the rich is assumed, tautologically at least, to be punching up. Saltburn is a peculiar beast that seems to split the difference between punching down and sideways. As a disobliging but SEO-friendly headline in The Daily Mail explains, “Emerald Fennell, whose father is celebrity jeweller Theo, went to Kate (Middleton)’s £39,000-a-year boarding school and is taking down toffs in her latest film.” In the hands of a member of Britain’s rarefied elite, a weapon of the powerless against the powerful feels like a double-edged sword. Satire resides uneasily within a film that wants to have champagne and drink it too.

Before settling in Highsmith territory, Saltburn begins like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: A middle-class student becomes infatuated with a wealthy student, his sister, his family, their wealth, their way of life and their ancestral home. For Oliver, his infatuation with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) spirals into obsession, as motives and desires become confused. Oliver wants to be Felix and be with Felix, love him and replace him. The conflation of sexual and social impulses is conveyed through scenes of vapid trolling rather than meaningful provocation. One sees Oliver spy on Felix masturbating in the bathtub and then slurp up the draining bathwater in a close-up.

If there is a rallying cry here, it isn’t eat the rich, but beware the lower classes. Fennell can’t even hide her contempt for commoners like Oliver — and it shows in the characterisation. Oliver is cast as an ungrateful parasite who leeches onto the wealthy, inventing victimhood narratives while concealing the reality of his dissatisfied middle-class existence. Sure, Oliver is neither a have nor a have-not, but “have-a-little, want more,” as Saul Alinsky termed it. But he feels like a rich person’s worst nightmare version of strivers, like fake heiress Anna Sorokin and health-tech fraud Elizabeth Holmes, who schemed around the rich out of a delusional entitlement to a life they believed they had been unfairly denied.

The sly brilliance of The Talented Mr Ripley lies in how Highsmith plays with our sympathies. She imbues Tom with the relatable motivations of a young man born without a silver spoon and eager to find his footing in the world. As he finesses and kills his way into the life to which he aspires, there is a part of us that wants him to get away and a part that wants him to get his comeuppance. Fennell, on the other hand, turns a middle-class anti-hero into a social-climbing psychopath with a decades-long murderous masterplan, thereby making the wealthy aristocrats sympathetic by default. The Cattons aren’t loathsome villains deserving of the fate that befalls them. They are just blinkered people who have kept their progressive ideals in check so it doesn’t disrupt their privileged lives. Fennell is careful not to set up easy punches by portraying the Cattons as aristocrats who say and do all the wrong things. Instead, she mocks their vices and follies from a distance, saving her most acid scorn for a middle-class in love with the aristocracy and desperate to supplant them. In spite of Waugh’s own love for the aristocracy, at least his satire had a withering wit. Fennell’s candy-coated critique, on the other hand, melts upon contact, exposing her witlessness. Any feeble strikes against the aristocracy here can’t be considered satire but friendly fire.

“The fatalistic position in Triangle of Sadness engenders a sense of defeat, undercutting the cathartic takedown of the obscenely wealthy that came before.” (Triangle of Sadness)
“The fatalistic position in Triangle of Sadness engenders a sense of defeat, undercutting the cathartic takedown of the obscenely wealthy that came before.” (Triangle of Sadness)

There is nothing friendly about Ruben Östlund’s satirical intentions in Triangle of Sadness. Aboard a luxury liner, a couple of models get more than they didn’t pay for, weapons manufacturers get blown up by one of their own grenades, and a Russian oligarch who sells “shit” as agricultural fertilizer gets caught in a literal shitstorm with tech bros and trophy wives. When the ship sinks, the remaining survivors are stranded on an uncharted island, where there is an inversion of the social hierarchy. Being the only one who knows how to fish, start a fire and cook, the cleaning woman Abigail (Dolly de Leon) establishes a matriarchy. Out of touch, removed from privilege and with no survival skills of their own, the rest have no choice but to live by her law. Östlund argues we as a society may be doomed to recreate unequal power structures because the system has been rigged in such a way that the easiest way to get out from under its thumb may be to embrace its worst qualities. This fatalistic position engenders a sense of defeat, undercutting the cathartic takedown of the obscenely wealthy that came before.

White Lotus concentrates its satiric fire not on the obscenely wealthy, but the recognisably well-off vacationing in luxury hotels in Maui and Sicily. Once it grew from a limited series into an anthology, class tensions between the guests and the staff started to take a backseat to the resentments and misunderstandings of the guests. The absence of a working-class perspective is startling and the satire suffers because of it. For it isn’t unreasonable to ask: Where are the overworked housekeeping staff cleaning up after the desires and whims of the guests have been indulged?

“The absence of a working-class perspective is startling and the satire suffers because of it.” (Scene from White Lotus)
“The absence of a working-class perspective is startling and the satire suffers because of it.” (Scene from White Lotus)

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho tackles the social hierarchy head-on in Parasite. The Parks are a family of four living in a gleaming mansion in the hills above Seoul. The Kims are a family of four living in a dingy sub-basement apartment. The elements of weather lay bare the extreme disparity. For the Parks, the arrival of torrential downpour postpones a camping trip. For the Kims, rain brings the filth and sewage of the city into their home. This contrast only galvanises our sympathies for the Kims as they trick their way onto the Parks’ payroll, one by one. By taking us from the world of the Kims to that of the Parks, Bong ensures we understand their desperation for a better life. As to who the parasite is, he leaves it ambiguous by design. Is it the Kims living off their gullible employers? Is it the Parks who depend on the cheap labour of an easily replaceable workforce for everyday tasks? Is it the man who has been hiding in the Parks’ basement for years or the loan sharks from whom he is hiding? Maybe it is the system itself that forces them all to feed off each other in a mutually exploitative relationship.

When Parasite became a globally acclaimed phenomenon, it opened up a new territory for a class satire industrial complex outside of science fiction. Satirists, on the big screen and small, have held a mirror up to society, finger-pointed at an unequal system, mocked the excesses of the rich, and encouraged viewers to confront their own privileges. Expecting anything more may be asking too much. Satire doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Nor does it pretend to be levelling agent. Satire isn’t meant to inspire radical social reform by itself; it doesn’t present a pathway to actual change; it only warps reality to reveal unspoken truths. The truth may not be pleasant. It seldom is. But wishing for more optimism from a film like Triangle of Sadness or a show like Succession would only carry them straight into the territory of sci-fi. If eat-the-rich satires keep getting cranked out year after year, with posh folks like Fennell now joining the action, it tells us the rich have no fear of being eaten. No objection to being ridiculed and vilified. In fact, they seem to welcome it all as a way to preserve the status quo of capitalism. As the Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson once said: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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