Cinematographer Linus Sandgren says he and director Emerald Fennell relied on their emotions and instincts to conjure the “gothic” look of “Saltburn,” the hybrid psychological horror and dark comedy just screened at the Camerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland.
The film’s tight Academy aspect ratio, for one thing, was an idea that arose only after meeting with Fennell, who wrote the over-the-top story of a strange, middle-class Oxford student, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), infiltrating the world of the filthy rich one sunny summer.
Meanwhile, the shooting location, a properly gloomy and stodgy estate, seemed to call out for the boxy cinematic frame they chose, says Sandgren, who spoke at Camerimage’s main screening hall. The mansion’s beveled ceilings, arches, ancient walls and blood-red floors indeed seem to close in on all sides as the family of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) reluctantly admits the novel interloper into their midst.
Fennell’s sophomore feature after 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” also stars Carey Mulligan, this time as an eccentric house guest the family has become bored with, building on strong performances by Rosamund Pike and Richard Grant as Catton’s parents, who seem equally charmed and uneasy about their son’s new best friend, Quick.
“Saltburn” has been building buzz since its premiere this year at Telluride, where Fennell’s reputation for over-the-top storytelling was advanced. “Saltburn” producer Margot Robbie, who knew Sandgren for his camerawork on 2022’s “Babylon,” urged him to meet with Fennell, the cinematographer recalls.
The meeting was fortuitous. “Emerald is such a funny, witty, special person,” Sandgren says, “and she has a very dark sense of humor.”
Thus, despite the exploration of gritty, consuming obsessions in “Saltburn,” the weeks spent filming on location at the properly old-school British Drayton House, Northamptonshire, had their light moments.
“We were laughing every day, for sure,” Sandgren says. “The whole crew. We had so much fun.”
The small crew working closely and with an indie budget, created a film with a look and feel wholly apart from Sandgren’s past work on box office hits such as “La La Land,” which won him an Oscar, Bond film “No Time to Die” and space race story “First Man.”
But the visuals of “Saltburn” were not the first consideration, he says, when sitting down with Fennell to conceive the film. Rather, he says, it always depends on the impact felt when reading the script and then, when meeting the director, “how it feels and if you connect.”
Being “interested and intrigued” are the essential elements for him, more so than any specific visual look – at least at the early stages. “We try to figure out what the film’s about,” Sandren says, adding that he often will eschew any visual references until the director can sum up for him their idea in one sentence.
“It’s about how to convey an emotional story. If you start with that, the look will come.”
In this case, Fennell’s ideas ranged from baroque paintings, to vampire themes and the odd Hitchcock motif – all of which led them to create a film that feels both lush and chilling, at first on the Oxford campus where Quick is desperate to fit in, then at the Catton estate, where he’s hopelessly out of sorts – and yet cunningly forming schemes.
Another theme that was down to Fennell’s vision was the voyeuristic sense that lets the audience “look into this old house,” Sandgren says. And, despite the sense of being enclosed, the filmmakers also embraced wide-angle filming to capture the grandeur and opulence of their subject. “We went back and forth,” he recalls.
Working on Kodak film was another point the two agreed on, Sandgren says, adding that the medium’s reaction to red light in some key scenes inside the family home was particularly well-suited to the growing sense of horror of “Saltburn.” So were close-ups of characters feeling extremes of emotions, with sweat, hair and bodily detail helping to build on the descent into obsession.
It all worked out well to propel the journey into darkness, Sandgren says, growing into other scenes of seduction that push boundaries. All of which just enriches the bloody cocktail of “Saltburn,” he says, noting, after all, “Vampires are sexual beings.”
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Advocates say a Mexican startup is illegally selling a health drink from an endangered fish
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Environmental watchdogs accused a Mexico-based startup Thursday of violating international trade law by selling a health supplement made from endangered totoaba fish to several countries including the U.S. and China.
Advocates told The Associated Press they also have concerns that the company, The Blue Formula, could be selling fish that is illegally caught in the wild.
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The product, which the company describes as “nature’s best kept secret,” is a small sachet of powder containing collagen taken from the fish that is designed to be mixed into a drink.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Mexico and the U.S. are both signatories, any export for sale of totoaba fish is illegal, unless bred in captivity with a particular permit. As a listed protected species, commercial import is also illegal under U.S. trade law.
The environmental watchdog group Cetacean Action Treasury first cited the company in November. Then on Thursday, a coalition of environmental charities — The Center for Biological Diversity, National Resources Defense Council and Animal Welfare Institute — filed a written complaint to CITES.
The Blue Formula did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment.
The company claims on its website to operate “100%” sustainably by sourcing fish from Cygnus Ocean, a farm which has a permit to breed totoaba, and using a portion of their profits to release some farmed fish back into the wild.
However, Cygnus Ocean does not have a permit for commercial export of their farmed fish, according to the environmental groups. The farm also did not immediately respond to a request from the AP for comment.
While the ecological impact of breeding totoaba in captivity is much smaller relative to wild fishing, advocates like Alejandro Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico representative, fear the company and farm could be used as a front.
“There is no good enforcement of the traceability of totoaba in Mexico,” said Olivera, “so it could be easily used to launder wild totoaba.”
Gillnet fishing for wild totoaba is illegal and one of the leading killers of critically endangered vaquita porpoise, of which recent surveys suggest less than a dozen may exist in the wild.
Gillnetting is driven by the exorbitant price for totoaba bladders in China, where they are sold as a delicacy for as much as gold. The Blue Formula’s supplement costs just under $100 for 200 grams.
In October U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized over $1 million worth of totoaba bladders in Arizona, hidden in a shipment of frozen fish. Roughly as much again was seized in Hong Kong the same month, in transit from Mexico to Thailand.
EU warns China it will ‘not tolerate’ unfair competition at summit
European leaders will “not be able to tolerate that our industrial base is undermined by unfair competition,” Ursula von der Leyen warned on Thursday after a highly anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Competition needs to be fair. We insist on fair competition within the single market, therefore we also insist on fair competition from companies that come to our single market,” the European Commission president told reporters in Beijing.
Her warning came following the first in-person meeting between EU leaders and President Xi in over four years. But despite the high stakes of the summit, happening amidst heightened geopolitical tensions and an increasingly fraught trade relationship, no new commitments emerged from either side.
The EU is concerned that Beijing’s import restrictions and generous subsidies for China-based firms are putting European companies at an unfair disadvantage, inflating the bloc’s massive trade deficit with Beijing.
The Asian giant is the EU’s biggest trading partner, with trade in goods amounting to a staggering €2.3 billion every day.
But EU imports from China now exceed its exports by almost €400 billion. This deficit has grown tenfold in the past 20 years and doubled over the past two years. According to von der Leyen, “such imbalances are just unsustainable.”
“I’m glad that we agreed with President Xi that trade should be balanced between the two of us,” she added.
Discussions on redressing trade imbalances with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang were in-depth and delved down into the facts and figures, von der Leyen said, although no concrete measures to address the imbalances immediately emerged from the meeting.
“We expect China to take more concrete action to improve market access and the investment environment for foreign companies,” European Council President Charles Michel, also present at the meeting, said.
According to Chinese state television, Premier Li had told both EU leaders that China opposes the “politicisation” of economic and trade ties.
The EU has adopted a ‘de-risking’ approach amid fears that its entrenched reliance on China for critical materials used in cleantech applications could erode its industries and jeopardize its security.
This means using the EU’s trade and domestic defence tools, such as its ongoing anti-subsidy probe into low-cost China-made electric cars that are flooding the EU market.
Von der Leyen insisted de-risking is not “exclusive to China” and highlighted that Beijing’s so-called self-reliance strategy is similar to the EU’s plan. She also emphasised the bloc was not looking to de-couple its economy from China’s as it has done from Russia’s in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine.
For Grzegorz Stec, an analyst from Chinese-sanctioned think-tank MERICS, the summit may not have delivered on much, but it has set the tone for relations going forward.
“There wasn’t really that much that has come out of the summit in terms of concrete deliverables, but in terms of framing the relationship going forward, it was a very meaningful exchange,” Stec said in an interview with Euronews.
“Why I think this exchange was meaningful is that it seemed that the EU has put on the table the fact that it really wants China to engage constructively, and if not, it’s going to take action, which is, let’s say the way that it was framed was assertive, not confrontational, because the European side was also pointing out the constructive aspects of the relationship that are already there.
“But it’s very much a signal that the EU side is expecting action to happen soon. On the Chinese side, if not, then our relationship might get a little bit more complex in terms of European responses.”
He added that this action could mean many things.
“Brussels now has an increasing portfolio of tools that are being put in place under the EU’s economic security agenda and the idea of de-risking.
“So, this is a plethora of tools that are being introduced on the EU level and here we have to take a look beyond issues that are more political, such as, for example, anti-coercion instruments.
“Other issues might include more investigations like the one that we’ve seen towards EVs, towards pet products, and also a number of other issues that are being put on the table on the European side.”
Ukraine, Gaza and Taiwan on the agenda
Both von der Leyen and Michel used their trip to urge Xi to do more to crack down on sanctions circumvention, where Chinese firms are suspected of indirectly feeding the Kremlin’s war campaign in Ukraine.
The bloc suspects that everyday products – including those made in the EU – that include components needed to manufacture drones, missiles and artillery shells are being re-exported to Russia through China.
Member states have been pushing to include sanctions on Chinese companies suspected of facilitating sanctions circumvention in the EU’s 12th package of sanctions, currently under negotiation.
A senior EU official said that while the overall export of high-priority battlefield items from China to Russia has declined, the latest data suggests exports of so-called ‘dual-use goods’ that could be redirected for military purposes are on the rise.
According to Michel, the EU has identified a list of companies “suspected of playing a role in circumventing sanctions.”
Von der Leyen said that China’s position on the war in Ukraine will “also define” EU-China relations. China has taken a neutral stance on the war and proposed a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine in March this year, but has refrained from severing ties with Putin.
“It is possible that we’re going to see some response on the Chinese side in the context of specific cases of specific companies providing specific goods, while China is in the mode of re-engagement with other actors,” MERICS analyst Stec told Euronews.
“But in terms of China changing its overall position in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this I would personally say is highly unlikely given the fact that China frames and sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine through the lens of its own competition with the United States and treated as a part of a wider geopolitical outlook.”
Leaders also broached the thorny issue of the ongoing war in the Middle East and the complex path to lasting peace in the region.
“We agree that getting lifesaving aid to the most vulnerable must be a top priority,” Michel said.
The EU is the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinian territories and has quadrupled its humanitarian aid to €100 million this year in response to the crisis engulfing the Gaza Strip. China’s response fades in comparison, offering $2 million (€1.86 million) in additional humanitarian assistance since the conflict erupted in October.
A senior EU official said that the summit was an opportunity for von der Leyen and Michel to put pressure on China to scale up its humanitarian response.
The two EU leaders, who were accompanied by the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, also expressed their concerns about the tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
The bloc and its Western counterparts oppose any change to the “status quo” in Taiwan, a democratically self-ruled island that China considers a breakaway province that should be reunited with the mainland.
Increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait and the precedent set by Putin in Ukraine has raised the alarm in Europe over a potential escalation in Taiwan. But the European and Chinese positions remain far apart.
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