By Gary M. Kramer.
The Burnt Orange Heresy purports itself to be the power of the critic in shaping the experience of a viewer, or, rather, how one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Well the truth about this film, directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, and written by Scott B. Smith, who adapted Charles Willeford’s neo-noir novel, is that it is an entertaining piffle until it isn’t.
James Figueras (Claes Bang) is an art critic. He recounts being told in art school that he is not a very good painter, but he does know how to talk about art – hence his career. [It should be noted that Bang, who gained fame playing a museum curator in The Square is being typecast as an art-world figure both here and in the forthcoming The Last Vermeer, where he plays a man investigating a Vermeer painting sold to the Nazis.]
At the start of the film, Figueras is lecturing about a painting that engenders indifference. However, when he explains the provenance of the artwork, it takes on a new, more valuable meaning. Herein lies his talent – he uses his charisma to influence opinion. And this quality works well on Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), who enters his lecture late. Soon Figueras and Berenice are flirting, then they are fucking. And the chemistry between these two attractive leads is irresistible. Their banter, even in a later scene where he tries to get her to say something nasty, is charming. Cynics may scoff that people don’t necessarily behave this way, but it is best to appreciate these moments before the film takes its wrong turn.
When Figueras gets a call from Joseph Cassidy (a louche Mick Jagger), he and Berenice visit the collector’s lavish Lake Como estate. It is decked out with art on every wall, hung almost like the Barnes Foundation. But what Cassidy is missing is a piece by Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Debney, has not done any interviews for fifty years, and Cassidy wants Figueras to interview him and procure him a Debney. Moreover, Cassidy enlists Figueras because the critic, who has a precarious financial situation, is looking for a kind of redemption. But this is not a redemption story at all; it is about the lengths Figueras will go to get what he wants.
Capotondi sets up this premise in a way that anyone who has seen a movie knows it will not be easy. When Debney, in his Southern drawl, pronounces that he “can’t abide an interview,” and that Figueras has not suffered enough to earn what he wants, Debney makes Figueras swim two laps underwater. This gives Debney an opportunity to chat with Berenice, and the scenes of them talking about eggs and stones – fragility and hardship – are freighted with meaning for viewers. Likewise, a story Figueras tells in the film about flies signaling doom, becomes heavy-handed as one crawls up Figueras’ nose or visits him in the bath.
The Burnt Orange Heresy, however, is best when it is ambiguous. When Cassidy meets with Figueras and Berenice, he winds them up a bit. She is surprisingly cagey about her provenance, claiming to hail from a small town outside of Duluth. When Figueras has a dream about Cassidy giving Berenice an envelope full of money, the question hangs in the air – did it actually happen? Debney also plays a part in the uncertainty. His most famous work is an empty frame hung in a gallery that burned and his artwork destroyed. There are, significantly, no images to show what kind of painter he is. The film repeatedly claims, “Nothing is what it seems,” but the trouble comes when things are exactly what they seem.
Figueras is, obviously, as ambitious as he is arrogant. While he is captivating telling a lie about art, he is less appealing when he leaves Debney and Berenice to do some investigating. And when the film shifts to Figueras doing something quite illegal, his desperate actions will prompt viewers to dislike him and where the story goes. The Burnt Orange Heresy boxes itself into a corner and Capotondi does not embrace the ludicrous plot turn in a delicious way. His film shifts from being a lighthearted romantic caper to a sluggish suspense thriller with an overlay of amorality. The tension of whether Figueras loves Berenice – who he really only just met – or not, is underplayed, as is the idea that Cassidy is setting Figueras up. When the not-unexpected double-whammy ending is revealed, it induces more yawns than surprise.
Nevertheless, Claes Bang exudes oily appeal as Figueras and cuts a sexy, striking figure in the Pierce Brosnan mold. Berenice is underwritten as a character, but Elizabeth Debicki is magnetic whenever she is on screen. It is emblematic of the film’s flaws that she is underserved. Mick Jagger makes the most of his three scenes, while Donald Sutherland hams it up (in a good way) as Debney.
The Burnt Orange Heresy isn’t bad; it is just that after a sparkling first half, one wishes it was better.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.