Oliver and Venetia’s dynamic in Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’ remains one of the more complex aspects of the film’s narrative. After Oliver strikes up a close friendship with Felix Catton at Oxford, he receives an invitation to stay at the Catton family Estate, Saltburn, over the summer. During this time, Oliver familiarizes himself with Felix’s family, including his sister, Venetia, who seems to be the most jaded of the bunch within the hedonistic Catton clan.
As the film progresses, and Oliver and Venetia’s relationship with it, the latter seems to be one of the only people who can see Oliver’s desperate attraction toward Felix for what it is. Nevertheless, it isn’t until after Felix’s death that the girl reveals the depth of her understanding to Oliver. As such, when she’s found dead the following morning, the viewers, who were the sole audience to the pair’s previous interaction, can’t help but wonder whether or not Oliver had a part to play in Venetia’s suicide. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Venetia’s Relationship With Oliver
Venetia’s death is the second in the film, closely following her brother Felix’s tragic passing. Earlier in the summer, Felix brings his university friend, Oliver, to the family house. The Cattons, especially Venetia’s mother, Elspeth, and Felix, have a tendency to bring such strangers into the family fold for their own amusement. In fact, before Oliver, Felix had a friend, Eddie, in high school, who was similarly invited for a stay at Saltburn before their friendship turned sour.
Therefore, Venetia is unbothered by Oliver’s presence and manages to enjoy it at first as well. Of all the Cattons— perhaps with the exception of the unofficial Catton, Farleigh Start— she is the most straightforward with Oliver. However, unlike Farleigh, Venetia’s candor comes from a callous disregard for the same mental games everyone around her is so interested in.
For the same reason, Venetia becomes an easy target for Oliver from the start. Throughout the film, Oliver is desperate to appeal himself to Felix and his family. For Felix, this comes from Oliver crafting a traumatic, financially unstable backstory for himself to compel the other man to keep him by his side. Likewise, he impresses Felix’s father, James, by calculatedly casual shared interests and Elspeth through flattery and entertaining gossip.
Thus, when it comes to Venetia, Oliver has a unique approach prepared. Oliver understands early on that Venetia struggles with control. Her overactive sex life, weary worldview, and torrid eating disorder solidify the same. Therefore, control becomes Oliver’s in with the girl, as he takes on a subtle dominating role over her, first through sex and then by manipulating her to manage her diet. However, their romance, or what-have-you, between them is short-lived after Oliver puts a stop to it once it hinders his friendship with Felix.
Nevertheless, through their initial relationship, Oliver gains an invaluable understanding of Venetia’s personality and learns how to have control over her. Inversely, Venetia also learns to see through Oliver’s facade and recognize him for who he is. Consequently, after Felix’s death, orchestrated by Oliver, the latter man and Venetia arrive at a conflict.
Venetia’s Death: A Suicide or a Murder?
On the night of Oliver’s birthday, he attempts to mend his relationship with Felix. However, the revelation of Oliver’s lies about his family, childhood, and upbringing has done irreparable damage between the two. Oliver essentially lied to Felix about who he was. Therefore, Felix rejects Oliver in earnest, leading the other man to mix poison into a drink, tricking Felix into consuming it.
Thus, Felix dies in a seemingly overdose accident that can be blamed on a wild night of partying. Nevertheless, the Cattons keep Oliver out of their suspicions, partly because of their unique coping mechanisms, which mostly involve deep denial, and partly because Oliver used Farleigh as his scapegoat. However, one of the Cattons, the most perceptive of them, notices Oliver’s connection to the death.
Yet, Venetia doesn’t realize Oliver’s true menace until the two have a conversation the night after Felix’s passing. Ever since Venetia learned about her brother’s death, she has been in shock. Her own unhealthy coping mechanism, drinking, becomes an easy crutch for her. Furthermore, at night, she soaks herself in a bath at Felix’s old bathroom, perhaps as a way to feel closer to her departed sibling.
Nevertheless, Oliver, who shared Felix’s bathroom during his stay, breaks her reverie, leading to a confrontation between them. During the same, Venetia realizes Oliver’s true feelings toward Felix after catching a whiff of his aftershave on the other men. Oliver desired her brother so vehemently that he plotted to take over his life once he realized he couldn’t have him.
Although that concludes their interaction, Venetia’s story takes a sharp turn afterward when her family discovers her body the next morning in a tub of her own blood. Officially, Venetia killed herself by slitting her wrists. It’s a compelling story— a sister with a history of mental issues committing suicide after the unbearable news of her brother’s death. However, once you take Oliver into account, the story starts to fray.
Where Oliver’s initial objective may have been winning Felix over, he undergoes a change that turns his obsession with Felix into an obsession with the Saltburn Estate as a whole. For the same reason, he kills Felix when he stands in the way of Oliver’s future at the estate. Likewise, once Venetia realizes Oliver’s part in her brother’s death, Oliver realizes she’s become a stone in his path as well.
Thus, since we know Oliver was the one who placed razor blades by the bathtub during Venetia’s bath, we can conclude he orchestrated her staged suicide. On one hand, he could have slit Venetia’s wrists himself, an action that could condemn him if the authorities closely investigate her death. On the other, Oliver could have handed Venetia the tool for her destruction, as he did with her brother, by manipulating her into taking her own life. Either way, Oliver and his deep-seated desire to own Saltburn remain responsible for Venetia’s death.