“Saltburn” Is the Y2K Movie We Never Saw Coming

Chiabella James/Prime Video

Chiabella James/Prime Video

Perverse. Unhinged. Horrifying. Horny. Deliciously bad, but also perhaps the best movie of 2023. These are just a few ways in which critics – mostly people on X (formerly known as Twitter) – have described “Saltburn,” the new film from director Emerald Fennell. The eat-the-rich storyline is one everyone sort of expected. Back in August, months before they were graced with a full trailer, people were comparing it to movies like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Brideshead Revisited.” But since its limited release earlier this month, there have been so – so! – many other details about this movie sparking discussion, little of which is the hair and makeup. But let’s not forget what really drew our attention when teasers for “Saltburn” hit the internet: an eyebrow piercing.

For years to come people will talk about how this film changed pop culture – the word guzzling will never be the same – but those subtle details (that bygone piercing, the matching tattoos, and the peroxide roots) are a huge reason why this movie could sink its teeth so far into our necks. Without them, these British aristocrats might have felt like nothing more than flat tropes. Don’t believe us? Allow Siân Miller, the “Saltburn” hair and makeup designer, to explain.

Miller tells POPSUGAR she was instantly captivated reading the “Saltburn” script. “I’ve read a lot of scripts over the last three decades, and sometimes it’s a bit of a chore, but this wasn’t the case,” she says. “It was such a page-turner and completely laid in with reference and detail.”

Since this film takes place somewhere around 2006, it isn’t just a contemporary story, it’s a period piece. In order to prepare for the hair and makeup design, Miller revisited classic Y2K movies and TV shows, like “Mean Girls” and “The O.C.” for inspiration. There, she remembered just how striking the beauty from the early aughts was – sexy little barbell piercings and all. Ahead, Miller breaks down some of the key makeup and hair design elements that helped bring these characters to life.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios

Felix’s Eyebrow Piercing Is More Than a Sign of the Times

If you aren’t sure which time period “Saltburn” takes place in, Jacob Elordi‘s eyebrow piercing should be all the context you need. Most people may associate eyebrow piercings with the ’90s, but before boy band heartthrobs rocked the hardware, punks in the ’70s made it their own. It was counterculture. Elordi’s character Felix Catton, the carefree rich kid who takes Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick under his wing, might look like he belongs in J-14, but inside – at Oxford University and away from his family’s manor Saltburn, at least – he’s punk. Miller says although Felix is “a superstar upon arrival,” his facial jewelry is an attempt at trying to be cool. That tousled, unkempt, early-stage mullet makes Felix look like his IDGAF attitude is completely thrown together, and maybe it is, but the eyebrow piercing, despite its appeal, should make you think otherwise.

Then again, just about every trend in the early aughts was “naff,” as Miller says. Even the tattoos, which Felix also has. In addition to a “carpe diem” tattoo, he has a few others written in the same font as the Catton family crest. Seems ironically conformist for someone who seems to try hard to fight against the limitations that come along with being an aristocrat.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios

Oliver Is a Proletariat Shapeshifter

“Oliver is definitely a shapeshifter and that’s very clear from the start,” Miller says. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Keoghan shared that he essentially plays five different characters in the film – five different versions of Oliver. When we first see him at Oxford, a middle-class scholarship kid, he’s got a geeky, blow-dried, “Zac Efron kind of hairdo.” He’s such a try-hard, and Miller made sure to show it.

Throughout the three acts of the film, the more time he spends ingratiated into the Cattons’ world – the more he becomes obsessed with it – we see him evolve and adapt to suit the company he keeps. While the Cattons may be aristocracy, they’re inherently disheveled. In fact, it was written into the script, the shabby chicness of it all, says Miller. So the longer Oliver is at Saltburn, the looser his look becomes. “He starts to imitate [Felix] a little bit,” she says. “He becomes a little bit less done. He gets more casual . . . he becomes a bit more tousled with the hairstyle.” By the end of the film, Oliver is the lord of Saltburn manor. Technically, he’s no longer the poor interloper, and his look had to say so. Miller says they made him very clean cut and groomed, like Cary Grant. The difference is that Grant probably never danced naked to “Murder on the Dancefloor.”

The Meaning Behind the Catton Siblings’ Tattoos

Venetia Catton may never be the Catton golden child, but that doesn’t seem to waver her relationship with her brother Felix – at least not by much. “It was very important for Emerald that there were elements of Venetia and Felix that mirrored each other and that’s how we played it with the tattoos,” Miller says. Whether it’s simply the placement of certain ink – Venetia has a tattoo on the inside of her arm where Oliver has “carpe diem” permanently etched – or the actual design – they share a cluster of stars on both of their hands – the siblings are physically linked one way or another throughout the film.

Venetia’s energy and aesthetic scream “rich girl who took a gap year to live in Bali,” so it’s not surprising that Miller didn’t want all of her tattoos to really mean anything at all. For example, Miller designed a tattoo for Venetia inspired by the mathematical number π. She also gave her a lightning bolt on her ankle and rose on her shoulder to finish the look.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios

Why Venetia’s Bleached Hair Is Perfectly Horrible

Alison Oliver, who plays Venetia, was game to bleach her hair to the point of breakage – just like any good socialite in 2006. While a wig was an option, Miller says that the actress was willing to push the limits of her hair health by having it bleached – and bleached and bleached – until it was just the right kind of brittle. Apparently, even Margot Robbie noticed. Miller says that the LuckyChap Entertainment producer paid a visit to the set not long after “Barbie” wrapped. “She came along to a screening and she sat behind me,” Miller says. “I could hear her saying, ‘Look at those brittle ends. They’re just perfect!.'”

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