Laurent Ledoux's blog

“Burn after reading” is a hilarious movie but also one that makes you think and warns us: We take ourselves way too seriously. We need to be OK with not being perfect, or we’ll end up making a big mess of our lives, just to keep from looking at ourselves in the mirror. Coincidently, “Burn”‘s plot seems to be directly inspired by recent political events in Belgium. I love movies, in particular those that tell us something intelligent and subtle about the society we live in, about who we are, what we are becoming (for an unexhaustive list of such movies, see my movie selection on IMDB – IMDB is a wonderful movie database).

In this entry, I review “Burn” and a few other movies and let you guess which political events in Belgium I refer to.

On the night of 22/12/08, I went to see “Burn after reading”, subtitled “Intelligence is relative”, the new comedy by the genial Coen brothers, which is laugh-out-loud funny, very dark, quite angry, at times surreal, always ironic. As always, I had a wonderful time watching a new work from the Coen brothers.

The story – a spy-thriller spoof – involves a demoted government worker (John Malkovich) who finds himself the target of an extortion scheme by two gym workers, riotously played by Frances McDormand (a would-be gym bunny if only she could afford some plastic surgery) and Brad Pitt (a high-energy, arm-thrusting, hip-shaking fitness trainer-cum-“good Samaritan” who lands himself way in over his head). The romp soon turns dark.

From the opening moments, the Coens’ latest movie hurls the viewer on a hilarious romp through Absurd-land. What better place to set such a story than Washington, DC? As I strolled back to my car still smiling about the lines and faces of some of the characters, it hits me: What better place? Belgium, for sure!

And then all the pieces came into place. This movie is not a gratuitous story full of violence, bad language, and in which everyone is sleeping with everyone else. It is a premonitory satire of the catastrophic consequences of an ill-designed, on-its-head policy pursued for the last two years in our own country. As our good Benoît Poelvoorde would say in his incomparable style “C’est arrive près de chez nous”, not in Washington, DC.

“Burn” criticizes as much our society as “The big Lebowski”, perhaps the Coen Brothers’ greatest work (1998), subtly and hilariously criticized the Gulf war, or as “Raise the red lantern” (“Da hong deng long gao gao gua”), the 1991 masterpiece by Zhang Yimou, which poetically and powerfully criticized the Chinese communist regime after the Tiananmen massacre.

To understand what I mean, you should have seen the movie.

If you did not yet, “run before reading” further and go see it as fast you can and then only continue reading. Indeed, the following paragraph may contain spoilers!

*** Spoilers start here ***

If you did see it already, just think about some of the main characters. Some of their physical traits may have been changed, just like the location of the events. But the essence of the plot and of the main characters’ interactions and motives is plain to see, almost obvious, at least when you know what has happened here and what is likely to happen:

  • Linda (Frances McDormand), a not-too-good looking simple woman who thinks she’s smart and who would stop at nothing in order to “re-invent herself”, takes advantage of what she thinks is a secret piece of information. Trying to exploit the situation to her advantage and hereby get enough money for her plastic surgery operations, she unchains a series of catastrophic events. Her surgery operations will eventually be paid by the taxpayers and all the murders she indirectly caused will be disposed off by the CIA;

  • Chad (Brad Pitt), the handsome but headless fitness-trainer, pushed by Linda, makes a big mistake and ends up being shot in the head by Harry (George Clooney), the bearded, paranoid, seducer. Note that Harry has, at the time, among many others, an affair with Linda, a member of the “League of Morons” as Ozzie (see below) will call them. He finally gets away with it all and is put on the next plane to Venezuela;

  • Ted (Richard Jenkins), a former orthodox priest and definitely heterosexual, is secretly in love with Linda and employs her as well as Chad. Trying to help her out of her mess, he finally gets butchered by Ozzie (John Malkovitch), a good citizen outraged by the “League of Morons” attempts to extract money from him as they blackmail him with a CD-rom containing his cherished “memoires”, his “brain child”;

  • The dead-pan CIA superior (J.K. Simmons) sums it all up in a memorable final line: “What a cluster-f*ck!”.

*** Spoilers end here ***

Movie script consultant Adam Best describes “Burn” on his website: “One big cluster f*ck of intelligence, technology, vanity, infidelity, Internet dating, middle-agedness, physical fitness and sex toy fetishes. What does the cluster f*ck say to us in the end? That we take things like these and ourselves way too seriously. Brad Pitt’s “Chad” defines why movies like Ghost Rider do well at the box office, and how W. got elected for not one but two terms. A brilliant performance. Green Day may have coined the phrase American Idiot, but nobody’s pulled it off as well as Pitt. His character sums up the whole movie; a bunch of confused dipsh*ts who would serve themselves well if they realized they weren’t even half as smart as they thought they were. This movie says that we need to be OK with not being perfect, or we’ll end up a race of ignorant, fake, murderous infidels, f*cking up all kinds of “sh*t” (as Chad would say) to keep from looking at ourselves in the mirror.

On the board reviews of the IMDB website (an internet movie database – see link in “My favorite links”), Erica-224 accurately synthesizes the film as follows: “As much as the film is funny, it actually paints very disturbing picture about stupidity, idiocy, incompetence, inability to see one step ahead of your actions that keep filling every aspect of our existence with dangerous speed.”

I could not have depicted better the situation we are currently going through. Sadly, for us, this is not a movie. It is real life (If you don’t get which events I’m referring to, next entry might give you some clues).

Now that I have seen “Burn”, I’m thinking to go again to the movie theater. I hesitate between two Italian movies: “Gomorra” and “Caos calmo”.

“Gomorra” is described by excellent Agenda’s critic Niels Ruëll as “a flint-hard and unfortunately authentic fresco, demonstrating how well entrenched the camorra or Naples Mafia is, how depressingly topical (the waste crisis), how horrendously globalised, how the beauty of the region is being visibly desecrated and a society that is rotting from the inside out”.

“Caos calmo”, on the other hand, is described as a successful adaptation of a subtle, much-loved by Sandro Veronesi about a businessman who pauses the film of his life after a tragic loss. After dropping his daughter at school in the morning, he decides to sit every day on a bench in front of the school and wait for her there all day. The film is about the effect of his standstill on those around him.

Wait a second! Am I also becoming paranoid here or are all movies currently playing in town political satires of what we are going through today?

As the CIA superior would say: “Report to me when… well, dunno when… when it makes sense! What did we learn from all this… dunno… What a cluster-f*ck!” 😉

Do you also think we are taking ourselves way too seriously and that this could be “bloody” dangerous? Do you have concrete examples in mind? Can you think of movies that warn us about this? If you do, don’t hesitate to share your thoughts with us.

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  1. Hi,

    To answer to your questions, I think all movies in general have a message to pass on and the message that each individual will understand depend on their own experience that they left or are leaving to. The perceptions we get is so amazing compare to each individual. Have you ever noticed when going with your friend to see a movie then when we try to debate about it we have just seen, If you are curious enough you will see, how each of us get different messages and opinions. This is in my own opinion what’s all about. Every human being will have a different views that reflect perhaps their current worries, try to find out what can help us to get our answers or understanding issues. I go to the cinema to have a “relax” moment however each time, I will get with new reflextions, ideas, interpreting in differnt scenarios. This is just the way I am, the beauty to always questions mysself of every situations. I do believe some people tend to forget to ask question to theirselves (lazyness..). We should teach this in school rahter than anything else, make people think and question theirselves will resolve most of the problem we are facing now.
    Also, a deep phylosophy of life that a movie recently saw “The curious case of Benjamin Button (2008)”by Eric Roth.

    Thank you for sharing your thought Laurent,

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  2. Thanks Sandra.
    I haven’t seen Benjamin Button yet but will do.
    Like great novels, great movies can tell us so much about the world, about looking differently at the world. And despite the enormous amount of junk movies, there are so many that are good ! I wish I would have another life just to go and watch them.
    You’ll find here a partial list of movies and liked:
    Take care,

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  3. Thank you Laurent .

    By going watch them you will get the life you wish for at least two hours. No too bad than nothing.

    Most of the movies listed, I have seen it!! Great choices.

    Take care too.


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