first person

I watched Saltburn with my parents and this is the moment my mum cracked

Emerald Fennell’s risqué thriller has had the nation clutching its pearls this festive season, and has made for awkward family viewing. I watched it with my mum and dad, writes Ellie Harrison, and survived to tell the tale

Saturday 30 December 2023 08:15 GMT
Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick lounges on the grass in ‘Saltburn’
Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick lounges on the grass in ‘Saltburn’ (Prime Video)

It was the semen in the bathwater scene that did it. The moment my mother cracked. There we were, two nights ago – mum, me, dad, in that order – wedged on the sofa watching Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s lavish country-house thriller that’s had the nation clutching its pearls over Christmas with its squirm-inducing “scenes of a sexual nature”. One of the most talked-about sequences sees Barry Keoghan’s libidinous interloper Oliver Quick slurping dregs of bathwater from a drain, minutes after Jacob Elordi’s handsome aristo Felix Catton has pleasured himself in that very same tub. This was the exact moment my mum reached for her go-to awkward film prop, the newspaper, and began to fervently (and unconvincingly) read an article about interest rates. My dad seemed to be stunned into silence. All I could do was laugh. We’d been here before.

Everyone’s experienced it. That awful, itchy, totally unerotic feeling of watching something saucy with the family. None of us more so than the poor woman who put on Saltburn for her relatives on Christmas Eve and was kicked out of the house. “It has been turned off and I’ve been told to go for a walk,” she said, in a viral tweet. I did suggest we watch Saltburn and, though I wasn’t made to leave, there were many noises of discomfort. And more than a few argh-no-what-is-he-doing-please-stop-it moments (grave-humping shot, I’m looking at you).

Even if you put debates about Fennell’s privilege aside, “the scenes” were sufficiently OTT and outrageous to prompt a lively WhatsApp discussion with my friends. “I saw it at the cinema and people were losing their minds,” one wrote. “Considering watching it with my parents now, but are there loads of bottoms?” asked another. I told them I reckoned it was safe. Because Saltburn is quite tame compared to some of the pure onscreen filth I’ve endured with my mum and dad.

Up there with the worst moments of my childhood (it was a nice childhood) has to be the time we watched Bad Santa. I was 11 years old when we rented the Billy Bob Thornton black comedy from the Video Box down the road and settled down to watch it on a Friday night. “This looks fun!” my parents thought. They had clearly not read any reviews or watched the trailer. At that age, I probably still hoped, a little bit, that Father Christmas was real. Well. Things changed forever after that. “F*** me Santa!” Lauren Graham squeals as she and Thornton’s St Nick get down to it in a car park. Mum goes a bit pale when I bring it up now. “None of us were prepared for that,” she says.

Other moments of trauma that spring to mind include the dreadfully drawn-out sex scene in Monster’s Ball (there’s a weird Billy Bob Thornton pattern emerging here) – I was a grown adult when we watched the film that won Halle Berry her Oscar, but that scene is a lot, and you never stop feeling like an embarrassed teenager around your parents. My younger sister watched all of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s sex-filled sitcom Catastrophe with my mum when she was 18. It was character-building.

We’re not alone, of course. A friend of mine still shudders when he thinks about the time he saw There’s Something About Mary at the cinema, aged 14, with his parents. His ordeal also involves a semen scene. Directed by the Farrelly brothers, the 1998 film – starring Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller – was both shocking and ribald at the time, immediately embedding itself in cinematic lore for a number of do-not-watch-with-parents set pieces. Most notable of these revolves around Mary mistaking Ted’s spunk for hair gel. “As I fell about laughing then suddenly sank into my chair,” my friend recalls, “that was the exact moment my parents realised I knew what masturbation was. I still remember the sad look in my mother’s eyes, as she looked at me sniggering and then back at Mary in the restaurant on the big screen, her quiff terrifyingly vertiginous.”

Cameron Diaz and her quiff in ‘There’s Something About Mary’
Cameron Diaz and her quiff in ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (Glenn Watson/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock)

And even now, five decades on, my dad vividly remembers the excruciating experience of watching Ken Russell’s 1969 romance Women in Love with his parents. The famous nude wrestling sequence between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed – totally scandalous at the time – was just too much for him to bear at 13.

Saltburn trailer

Almost all of us have at least one story about the agony of watching onscreen sex with mum and dad. It’s a rite of passage. So I urge everybody to watch Saltburn with their family this festive season… it’s a vital part of the human experience, after all. And you’ll laugh about it one day. Hopefully.

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