Patriarchy Hurts: Outgrowing Scorched Earth in Burnt
Considering all that’s going on in the media with identity politics and fragile male egos, I decided it was high time to revisit the Male Melodrama. In Burnt, Adam Jones (played by Bradley Cooper) is built up as a culinary God. His reputation is the only thing sustaining him and those around him. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure! But if you can’t take the heat…
Melodrama as a genre tends to play out deep suffering and internal conflict, usually with an unhappy ending. The genre is usually associated with women, but since crises of masculinity make up the plots of so many mainstream films this is verging on bizarre. From this point on, when the terms masculine or feminine are used this is to mark stereotypical traits, it does not hold with my own opinion.
Burnt shows the genuine agony that can come from having your ego blown into legendary status. You might find your hackles raised by that sentence. But really think about it, put yourself in the shoes of a double-Michelin star chef. Everyone around him depends on him. Everyone expects perfection. He cannot fail, he cannot falter, he cannot complain. That’s not a sustainable way to live. When the film opens, we learn that Adam Jones has set himself a penance of shucking a million oysters. He marks them off in a notebook, much like a prisoner might put dashes on their walls. We are given cold, out-of-focus visuals accompanied by Jones telling us of his inevitable fall from grace.
“God created oysters and apples.
And you can’t improve recipes like that.
But it is our job to try.”
Adam Jones has learnt nothing for all his oyster-shucking. His plan is to force his way back to the top by standing on the backs of everyone around him. Because that worked so well the last time? He seeks out Tony, the maître d from the restaurant that made and broke his reputation. The next step of his plan is to surround himself with adoring hopefuls and grind them all into the ground in the hope that something wonderful comes from it. He goes on a taste test round London and picks out Helene and David for their culinary prowess.
In Helene’s case, he goes back to the kitchen to mansplain her cooking to her, then fails to understand why she isn’t leaping at the chance to work with THE Adam Jones. As for David, Adam humiliates him for being dazzled by his hero. Adam asks if David would work for nothing to work with him, then pushes to ask if he would pay for the chance to work with him. Lol, has Adam Jones never heard of the arts? Coincidentally, a former colleague of his spots him in the street and immediately tackles him. Adam Jones is carrying a lot of demons from Paris. He finds out that during his drug haze, he closed Michel’s restaurant by letting loose rats and calling the health inspector. Michel decides to work with him anyway.
Racking focus visually separates Adam Jones from everyone else. He is always in sharp focus. At the start of the film, this conveys distance that he is glad of because he believes he’s better than everyone else. As we get to know Adam and see the toll perfection takes, it speaks more of self-inflicted isolation. The camera and editing move fast and decisively, mirroring the pace of the subject matter. A lot is communicated purely visually, for instance, we learn of Jones’ addiction through watching Tony check his hotel room. The camera pans around the mini-bar and table, showing us untouched alcohol. There is only water, which Tony sniffs.
Burnt sets up a dichotomy between metallic, uninviting masculine spaces and organic, feminine spaces filled with light and plants. Tony decides only to work with Adam if he will see a therapist, played by the wonderful Emma Thompson. Her house is bright and you can see her well-kept garden at all times through the window. It’s the same at Helene’s house. Whenever Adam makes an emotional breakthrough, he is outdoors.
But before his breakthrough come the breakdowns. Despite a relatively successfull opening night, Adam trashes the pass. He shouts at his staff “Tonight was a disaster. It’s my fault”, and humiliates Helene and Michel in front of their colleagues.
“Some nights I was almost as good
as I thought I was”
As per usual in Male Melodrama, Adam Jones’ behaviour is excused and forgiven on the basis of his tragic past – Tony finds Helene after this humiliation and proclaims “He had a difficult childhood. He wants you back. He likes you”. Well, so what? Burnt has a problematic relationship with Helene. Her idea is that food “At it’s best – [is about] sustaining someone, love.” Adam immediately counters that it shouldn’t be, that it’s more like f@*cking and asks about her last orgasm. Not only does this not encourage me to buy into their romance, it goes beyond arrogance to a complete miscomprehension of his own profession.
Jones seems to value all the wrong parts of being a chef, it makes him a bad teacher and arguably enables his addictive personality, he cites the “heat, pressure, violence, all the screaming” as reasons to love his work. The only time we see him loosen his vice-like fixation on the Michelin star is when him and Helene kiss. While they are very much in a grimy, grey, masculine space, the fact that they both drop their bags of precious ingredients to share a moment of real connection marks a turning point in the film.
“Simone, you’re a lesbian.
Why did you sleep with Adam Jones?”
Adam Jones learnt nothing from his time in exile, and everyone around him nearly suffers the consequences. He hits his lowest point when Michel takes revenge “For Paris” and they’re about to lose the Michelin Star as a result.
Jones visits his rival, drunk and clearly on the verge of breaking down. Reece shouts “Everybody out. Everybody out now!” Reputation is the most important thing, after all. Reece holds him as he cries and cooks him food the next morning – sustaining him, some might say.
Once he finally starts to deal with and acknowledge his past, he begins to improve as a teacher, a chef and probably a healthier person. He nearly blames his team, then accepts responsibility himself; “We fucked it up – I fucked it up. Fucked it up a long time ago”. His Ex visits and tells him that she has paid off his drug debt, in an outdoor, bright space with 3 big plants. She passes on her father’s knives, a powerful symbol of masculinity for Adam who so valued Jean-Luc’s opinion. He consequently vows to gain back respect and be worthy of her father. At the film’s end, Helene says “We cook together and we take care of each other. You can’t do it alone” and Adam finally starts to listen. He watches David who has learnt to work the pass in the time he’s been gone and Cooper powerfully conveys the mix of emotions Adam is struggling with.
Adam goes outside and agonizes over whether to accept this new order in a bright outdoor space, in view of the river. When he comes back in, the team are sitting together having a family meal. They’re slightly out of focus but come into focus as Adam joins them. This film surprised me. Adam starts as a wounded washed-up former chef who ruined his life and his reputation. Through the influence of Helene and the rest of his adoring team, he moves towards a cooperative, supportive (stereotypically feminine) way of life. It does rankle that despite Sienna Miller’s strong performance, Helene exists only in opposition to Adam. With more depth to her story and more consequence for the fact that he literally got her fired to force her to work for him, Burnt would be close to the perfection Adam Jones strives for.