The Burnt Orange Heresy closed the 2019 Venice Film Festival and had a short theatrical run in March, 2020, before the pandemic shut down theaters. The film is now being re-released in cities where theaters have opened with restrictions due to the virus. It is not yet available to stream online.
As an art student, James Figueras (Claes Bang) dreamt of having a banner announcing his exhibition hanging outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a teacher told him that he was better talking about art rather than doing it, he became a critic. He manages to make a living giving talks to American tourists in Milan (although few stick around to buy his book, The Power of the Critic). His lecture points out how critics often dupe the public and he presents a prime example. With a painting consisting of colorful brush strokes projected on an overhead screen, he spins a tale about the artist – a Holocaust survivor. After he has the audience in the palm of his hand, he slaps them down by revealing the story is false and that he did the painting.
Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), a Midwesterner on a European tour, catches the end of James’ talk and is amused. She also is smart and can match him quip for quip. They flirt and soon are having sex in his hotel room. (Despite the physical intimacy, they learn little about each other, keeping up the witty banter that has little substance.) He’s been invited to the Lake Como estate of a well known art collector and invites her to come along. The wealthy patron, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, overplaying the role with delightful results), has done his research on Figueras, whose shady past makes him the perfect pawn. The aging artist, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland, who hasn’t missed a step), is renting a house on Cassidy’s property. Several times in the past, Debney’s work has been destroyed in fires. Cassidy, knowing that Debney’s days are numbered, wants to own what could be his last painting. He promises Figueras an interview with Debney, hoping the critic will gain access to the artist’s studio.
Debney shows up at the mansion’s pool and invites both James and Berenice to dinner. While Berenice agrees to go on an afternoon boat ride with Debney, James says he needs to rest. During their time together, Berenice opens up to Debney, explaining why she had to leave her teaching job. Not as enamored of the art world, particularly the way artists are exploited by collectors and, yes, critics, she becomes protective of Debney. Instead of napping, James tries to break into Debney’s house, the effort earning him a bloodied nose but no access.
That evening Debney finally takes both James and Berenice into his atelier. “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is scribbled on the back of one of the canvases. Debney laughs, saying the critics will go crazy trying to figure out the significance of the title. After the reveal, James is even more determined to deliver that painting to Cassidy.
The Burnt Orange Heresy, based on the novel by Charles Willeford, was set in Miami, also the location for his series featuring Hoke Moseley, a Miami detective. Relocating the drama to Lake Como works. The juxtaposition between the darkening plot besides the glorious views of Lake Como ramps up the tension. How can something evil take up residence in such a beautiful setting?
James is ambitious and desperate to jump start his career, but even he can’t believe what he’s capable of doing. There’s a moment signaling that transformation for James. After telling Berenice that artists often include flies in their paintings to signify evil, an insect climbs into his nose while he’s sleeping.
Under the direction of Giuseppe Capotondi, James’ personality change seems inevitable, as does Berenice’s emergence as a barometer of right and wrong. Both Bang and Debicki are terrific in their roles, including in several scenes which involve physical encounters that turn violent.
Sutherland appears to be having the time of his life playing an artist with a big secret intent on toying with those pursuing him. Jagger is so believable as a wealthy collector that we actually forget he’s Mick Jagger.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, this is a film worth searching for if you can find a theater truly taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus. Otherwise, hope for a release on a streaming service.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics