Burnt Out

Burnt Out


Reviewed by: Themroc

Burnt Out is the latest in a recent cycle of French films examining how the fraternité and egalité supposedly protected by the European financial 'Social Model' are increasingly under threat from an excess of US-style economic liberté. Films such as Phillipe Harel’s Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (Whatever), Laurent Cantet’s L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out), Cédric Kahn’s Feux Rouges (Red Lights), and most recently, Costa Gavras’ allegorical satire Le Couperet (The Ax), have all in their own ways argued that the pressures of globalisation and the spread of unrestrained free market capitalism have inadvertently produced an invisible underclass of white-collar casualties.

The frankly persuasive central contention of these films is that a generation of middle-aged, middle class professional men have been emasculated by their status as anonymous cogs in an impersonal machine. Their sense of self-worth has been sapped and their ability to communicate emotionally with those around them compromised. In an increasing state of desperation and despair they find themselves driven to the edge of breakdown, violence, psychosis and self-annihilation. What happens, these films ask, when the accumulated rage and resentment inevitably explode?

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In Burnt Out, François Durrieux, a white-collar worker, gets by in a banal and unspecified middle-management position. The frustrations of his professional life are generally compensated for by the lifestyle he can afford for his beautiful wife and son. These frustrations are brought to a head, however, when Simon, a close friend and colleague, is sacked and subsequently commits suicide. Enraged by the callousness of his boss and colleagues, Durrieux kicks back violently and the unintended consequences lead to him becoming a fugitive from justice. Sheltered from the police by a young female pickpocket to whom he has given a lift, Durrieux contacts a reporter who has been covering the story and asks her to help him uncover the truth.

Although broadly similar in narrative terms to the films listed above, Fabienne Godet’s debut feature is far less effective, either as an intelligent critique of capitalism (which, according to her interviews, was what she intended) or even as an engaging piece of drama. I’m reluctant to suggest that this is because, for whatever reason, Godet lacks a proper understanding of the contemporary crisis in masculinity. She just doesn’t seem interested in properly examining it. Further exploration of the complex and fragile nature of male self-esteem and the often troubling ways in which bitter emasculation manifests itself as violence and misogyny are ignored in favour of a manipulative and altogether stupid piece of polemical melodrama.

Presumably in Godet’s mind, Durreux and Simon are anti-capitalist martyrs – casualties of a David and Goliath struggle for decency and respect, or 'People Over Profit' as the slogan goes. The problem is that by refusing to investigate the real source of her protagonists’ frustration any further than a broad portrait of an unpleasant superior and a vaguely exploitative workplace, Godet unwisely takes our understanding for her characters’ sense of helplessness and injustice as a given. In so doing, she reduces them to little more than pawns in her rather pedestrian argument and never succeeds in communicating the sense of alienation and isolated suffering that made the flawed antihero of, for example, L’Emploi Du Temps so tragic. Certainly, I was left with no indication as to why a man with a devoted wife, redundancy notwithstanding, should feel unhappiness so profound that he has to take his own life. The result is that Simon’s suicide and Durreux’s consequent resignation and abortive rebellion seem more like the selfish acts of petulant children than of those of desperate, tormented adults.

Although it is inarguable that practically every scene is designed to evoke a kind of patronising sympathy for the men, nothing either of them does seems designed to inspire any sense of respect. Durreux’s lumpen passivity is at first exasperating but quickly becomes boring, and when he’s finally shaken out of it, it is only so that he can demand attention and thrash around impotently like a disgruntled infant. His knee-jerk response to his friend’s death isn’t even motivated by an ideological awakening or renewed sense of social awareness, but by an immature sense of outrage that the whole world hasn’t come to a standstill to grieve with him.

In truth, despite her assertions to the contrary, I don’t think that Godet identifies with either Durreux or Simon or any of the male characters for that matter. While the men are invariably fat and/or ugly and portrayed either as wet and ineffectual or as callous bullies, it is the fairer sex that monopolise the film’s beauty, common sense and compassion. Durreux’s stoical, loyal and impossibly patient wife Clemence is presented as the mature, stabilising influence in their marriage. Then there’s the honest decency and persistence of Flora the reporter who first of all conspicuously shames Simon’s treacherous colleagues and then overcomes the surly objections of her vaguely chauvinistic editor to uncover the truth. And finally there’s Lisa, the tough-talking and resourceful thief with the heart of gold who rolls her own cigarettes. Despite looking half his age, she takes Durreux under her maternal wing once he becomes a fugitive and makes all his decisions for him. Then in a particularly implausible act of altruism, she lies to the surly police officers who question her about Durreux’s whereabouts even though doing so could land her with a jail term.

By the time the film reaches its mawkish conclusion, the idea that capitalism is castrating a generation of men has been all but abandoned. Instead we’re left with the implicit suggestion that it is testosterone and masculinity itself, or at least Godet’s narrow representation of it, that is responsible for their undoing. Oh, if only men would grow up, she seems to be sighing, and behave as rationally and sensitively as women, then there’d be no need for all this misery…

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2005
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Burnt Out packshot
A white collar worker goes to pieces following the suicide of his best friend.

Director: Fabienne Godet

Writer: Fabienne Godet, Franck Vassal, Juliette Sales

Starring: Olivier Gourmet, Dominique Blanc, Julie Depardieu, Marion Cotillard

Year: 2005

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: France/Germany


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If you like this, try:

Red Lights
Time Out