[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Saltburn,” “Fair Play,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”]

All’s fair in love, war, and other bloody battles, according to the not-quite-feminist trend of watching period sex play out onscreen.

Two of the year’s buzziest films — Chloe Domont’s Sundance stunner “Fair Play” and Emerald Fennell’s recent (and very viral) “Saltburn” — exist in the same vein (quite literally) of destigmatizing period sex, showing off cunnilingus onscreen. And yet, both films argue that the man performing this specific sexual act isn’t just pleasuring the woman in question: He’s actually taking her life force. Is that only reinforcing the symbolism of menstrual blood being a marker of the so-called “weaker sex”?

“Saltburn” has been billed as a sort of “vampire movie” by filmmaker Fennell. The scene in question shows Oliver (Barry Keoghan) taking a bite out of his current prey: Venetia (Alison Oliver), the sister of his real obsession, Felix (Jacob Elordi). In a seeming visual ode to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Venetia wanders the fog-shrouded gardens of her palatial estate in a sheer white nightgown, staring up at Oliver’s window, seemingly daring him to come down and have his way with her.

Fennell’s Gothic visual style mirrors the mythical elements of Coppola’s 1992 film about otherworldly seduction: The “Saltburn” garden scene especially parallels the carnal possessions of Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Mina (Winona Ryder), who are cosmically drawn to Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula; he inevitably sucks their energies away in a slow sapping of desire after luring each into the garden not of Eden but sin.

In “Saltburn,” Oliver feasts on Venetia in a more literal sense: Oliver finally indulges Venetia in her game, and offers her oral pleasure while she is menstruating. Blood covers his face and stains her nightgown. But the real impact is more wide-ranging: The act so entrances Venetia that she’s compelled to follow Oliver’s specific instructions for how he will control her moving forward, including demanding she gorge on food to combat her anorexia. It becomes a sort of foreplay; that is, until Oliver moves on to his next target. That Gothic sex scene sets the stage for the overarching theme of Oliver sinking his teeth into high society.

SALTBURN, Alison Oliver, 2023. © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection
Alison Oliver in “Saltburn” © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The reference Emerald had was ‘Dracula,’” actress Oliver told IndieWire during a recent interview. “In terms of logistics, it was just a lot of fake blood. … [It’s] another scene where he learns what Venetia’s insecurities are and uses that as a way to kind of get her. For her, that scene is an odd revelation, because there is a fine line between disgust and fascination. I think she’s never met anyone like Oliver before. He’s telling her, ‘Yes, I see all of your glamour and your beauty, but also I see the other parts of you, and I see it and accept it.’”

Oliver continued, “He tells her to eat food. I don’t think anyone has ever told her in her life to eat food. So it’s kind of like, ‘Who is this guy?’ She’s kind of just letting him drive the car and is like, ‘Don’t stop.’ I guess through that scene we see his power and intelligence and actually how fragile [Venetia] is and how easily manipulated the whole family is.”

Oliver revealed that director Fennell wanted to keep the camera solely on the actors’ faces during the cunnilingus scene to emphasize the mind games at play. “I think, like all of the actual sex scenes, in the film, you’re kind of just with everyone’s face. You don’t really actually see much or anything at all,” Oliver said. “Emerald is tracking what’s happening psychologically between the characters, pushing the story along, and we’re starting to see Oliver get to know this family and start to learn what people’s vulnerabilities are to get them under his thumb.”

Or his tongue, it seems.

Later, Keoghan’s character Oliver performs another sexual act on, of all things, a bathtub drain after Felix masturbates while bathing, similar to Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley touching the tub water after Jude Law’s Dickie vacated it in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The bath scene comes full circle after Oliver speaks with Venetia following Felix’s funeral; Venetia confronts Oliver, accusing him of devouring their family from the inside out like a “moth” and not a bloodthirsty spider. Of course, Oliver’s intimate consumption started first with Venetia.

SALTBURN, Barry Keoghan, 2023. © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Saltburn” © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Even when [Oliver] kind of rejects her, for her, it’s cringe to care about anything, so she’s just like, ‘Yeah, whatever’ and moves past that. And then her way of seeing him kind of changes a little bit, because in a way, as it’s going on, she’s starting to go, ‘What’s your deal?,’” actress Oliver said. “I think there is a quietness to that in a way until we see her confront him at the end. She spends a lot of this film kind of just trying to figure out who this guy is.”

Given their apparent blood pact, Venetia is the only person who can really see him for who he is. For that, Oliver slits her wrists and stages Venetia’s suicide, leaving her floating in a tub of her own blood. He does not press his mouth to the drain, though, having already consumed her blood in other ways. In some ways, Venetia’s murder is more intimate than her other little death in the garden.

Writer-director Fennell told The Los Angeles Times of writing the film during the pandemic that “Saltburn” is about “touching people — about sweat, about blood, about semen. There is something freeing about interrogating that feeling of consuming other people.”

Fennell later told IndieWire, “The best response for this film, which some people have, is they’re quite physically shaken. They’ve got quite a lot of adrenaline afterward. That’s when it’s really exciting. They’re like, ‘I could kill someone!’ Or, ‘I could fuck someone!’”

That theme — of Oliver sucking the life force out of a wealthy family and weaponizing the power dynamic of burrowing inside someone using his mouth, manipulative words and sexualized tongue included — emphasizes the presumed weakness of female pleasure, something that Venetia recognizes but ultimately is punished for. The film ends with Oliver detailing his master plan to the last remaining member of the family, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), who is in a vegetative state after Oliver has physically tormented her after she signed over her property in her will to him. It’s fitting that Oliver’s final component in his chess game of chasing elitism is a queen where the men, and would-be king (Richard E. Grant), are merely taken as pawns.

In contrast, writer-director Chloe Domont’s Sundance breakout “Fair Play” toys with the idea that whoever is bleeding at any given moment is the weaker sex, regardless of gender. The film opens with an early scene of newly engaged couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) engaging in furtive sex at a wedding. Luke quickly ruins Emily’s silk slip dress, though, as her period begins in the process of their love-making. The couple laugh it off, as Luke covers Emily’s bloodied outfit with his coat jacket — and they flee the party to resume sex in the comfort of their own home.

FAIR PLAY, from left: Alden Ehrenreich, Phoebe Dynevor, 2023.  © Netflix /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Fair Play”©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Actress Dynevor spoke with Elle about redefining the sexiness of menstruation, especially filmed with a female gaze. “‘Why would we do that? That’s not sexy’ — that’s what they would think,” Dynevor said of a male director filming a period sex scene. “But it draws you in and you know that this isn’t going to be your average film. When you see a film like this, it really pushes you to want to create more and put more female influence out into the world. We as women know these things happen all the time, but why are we not seeing it on our screens?”

As “Fair Play” progresses and Luke’s sanity begins to take second place to his jealous resentment of Emily’s career, a reverse “Lady Macbeth” narrative emerges. Luke descends into paranoid madness, while Emily has the opposite effect of “out, out damned spot”; instead, she wants more blood spilled to embody Luke abusing her. The film is bookended by a blood-to-blood visual arc, as Emily threatens Luke with a knife after he attempts to sexually assault her at their own engagement party, the final moment mirroring the opening sex scene in its framework.

In “Fair Play,” blood isn’t a cornerstone of femininity: It’s indicative of who isn’t in control. By the end of the film, Emily finally makes Luke bleed by slashing his shoulders with a blade and demanding an apology.

Cunnilingus in “Fair Play” is taken to quite literally mean giving something, and Luke’s head is nowhere near pleasuring Emily. Instead, Emily’s insatiability is viewed by Luke as proof that she is becoming more masculine with her success by entering the “boy’s club” at work. Emily drunkenly jokes that she’d promote her direct report Luke if he “eats her pussy.”

“It was really about the questions that drove me to write this — like, how can we dismantle this toxic link between female empowerment and male fragility?,” Domont told Esquire. “How can women learn to embrace their successes without fearing that it’ll hurt [their partner]?”

Inevitably, Luke’s emotionally abusive torment culminates in assaulting her, and Emily is forced to hurt Luke back to make him leave their apartment out of a safety concern. To Luke, Emily has drained his monetary life force by taking the job he thought he was entitled to; Luke may have swallowed Emily’s blood, but she was determined to make him bleed out of anger and then clean it up off her floors, as she spits in the final scene.

The use of menstrual blood in the dark comedy “Saltburn” might feel vastly different than how it plays out in “Fair Play,” yet both films frame a trend of weaponizing an uncontrollable bodily function, redefining weakness, and grappling with these flipped gender dynamics. Talk about taking the phrase “blood, sweat, and tears” into new spaces.

“Saltburn” is currently in theaters, and “Fair Play” is now streaming on Netflix.

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