If “Promising Young Woman” was Emerald Fennell’s darkly comic take on the rape-revenge thriller — one that rode a zeitgeisty wave of discourse onto a best original screenplay Oscar in 2021 — “Saltburn” is the writer-director’s entry in the country house canon. The film (in theaters) is the latest in a subgenre ripe for dramatic tension: upstairs versus downstairs; invited versus interloped; public versus private. Away from prying eyes, characters in these tales tend to revel in their idyllic surroundings as unseen, often sinister, forces work against them, resulting in an unforgettable stay.
In “Saltburn,” Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a shy Oxford student, accepts an invitation to spend the summer at the family estate of a wealthy classmate, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). While there, Oliver’s adoration for the charming aristocrat reveals itself to be much more than an innocent infatuation.
With its covetous double helix of class consciousness and homoeroticism, “Saltburn” fits in nicely alongside literary classics like “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (and their many screen adaptations). Here are five other films where summering at a country house leads to significant power imbalances and lifelong consequences.
The Coming-of-Age Country House Movie
‘The Go-Between’ (1971)
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Joseph Losey, whose 1963 film, “The Servant,” is its own masterpiece of queer-coded dominance, works once again from a Harold Pinter screenplay to direct this quintessentially British period drama. Young Leo (Dominic Guard) is invited by a wealthy friend to spend the summer at his family’s country house. But when his friend is quarantined with the measles, Leo must devise another way to pass the time. He soon finds himself the fraught messenger for his friend’s beautiful sister (Julie Christie) and her secret lover, the tenant farmer (Alan Bates). Stunning shots of the property’s fertile grounds fuel this Palme d’Or winner with a sense of freedom that its owners are quick to curtail; when the film catches up with Leo decades later, his loss of innocence can be pinpointed back to that fateful summer.
The Art House Country House Movie
‘Cries and Whispers’ (1972)
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The silence of God, humanity’s inability to connect, the secret grudges that quietly tear families apart: all themes the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman saw fit to set against the peacefulness of a summer house no less than a half dozen times. Here, it’s a searing look at the final days of a woman dying of cancer at her family’s opulent mansion, and her two sisters’ painful attempt to thaw out years of estrangement. As they struggle against the clock to process their emotions, the house’s maid shuffles in saintly servitude. Sven Nykvist’s Oscar-winning cinematography places the white-clad women — including the Bergman regulars Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin — against richly saturated crimson walls, bringing out piercing performances from their icy exteriors.
The Documentary Country House Movie
‘Grey Gardens’ (1975)
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One of the most consequential documentaries of all time serves as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t pack it up at summer’s end. When Albert and David Maysles were hired by Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister Lee Radziwill to make a film about their family, the documentarians’ attention quickly shifted to the women’s eccentric cousins: “Little Edie” and her mother, “Big Edie” Beale. The erstwhile socialites had boarded themselves up for nearly 20 years in their decaying home in East Hampton, N.Y., the stench of garbage and cat urine undergirding their peculiar relationship. With a distinctly American blend of can-do and laissez-faire, the Beales continue their business as usual, impervious to the changing tides of the outside world.
The Cruel Country House Movie
‘Chinese Roulette’ (1976)
Stream it on the Criterion Channel.
Born in Germany in 1945, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made films that emerged from a deep-seated mistrust of humanity. But he gave a despairing, devilish wink in even his cruelest works, like this bleak psychological thriller where two cheating spouses accidentally take lovers to their country estate on the same weekend. When their resentful young daughter arrives, she manipulates the foursome, the housekeeper and her son into playing the titular game, a sort of diabolical truth or dare, over dinner. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography constructs a claustrophobic ballet around the house’s mirrored interiors, tightening reflective nooses around each of its deeply guilty guests.
The Tender Country House Movie
‘Call Me by Your Name’ (2017)
Stream it on Netflix.
James Ivory picked up the country house torch and ran through the ’80s and ’90s with hits like “A Room With a View” and “The Remains of the Day,” all of which were produced by his partner, Ismail Merchant. But it was for adapting André Aciman’s novel “Call Me by Your Name” that he won his first Oscar — becoming the oldest-ever winner at 89. The director Luca Guadagnino bathes the film in its Northern Italian setting, where a bookworm teen learns of the wounding and healing powers of sexual attraction after a graduate student arrives at his family’s lush villa.