Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy Takes Thrilling Aim at Critical Pretensions

The film allows that we are complicit in privilege for our fascination and envy.

The Burnt Orange Heresy
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Given the current polarization of political discourse, it’s become easy for filmmakers to satirize the rich as monsters. In the last two weeks alone, three new horror movies have been driven in part by such caricatures, not to mention the films that were all the rage last year, from Rian Johnson’s Knives Out to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. What’s missing from the fashionable preaching of these productions (partially exempting Parasite) is wickedness, a sense that we’re learning something we didn’t already know, or are perhaps forging a risky kinship with characters who should theoretically repel us. In this context, The Burnt Orange Heresy offers a naughty thrill, as director Giuseppe Capotondi and screenwriter Scott B. Smith establish an atmosphere of rarefied debauchery, which they allow to hang in the air for a surprisingly extended amount of time, until springing a rushed third act.

Adapted from Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name, The Burnt Orange Heresy is a form of revenge exacted upon critics. In Milan, an art critic, James Figueras (Claes Bang), delivers a lecture, promoting a book he’s written tellingly called The Power of Critics. James discusses a primitive-looking yet bold painting involving yellows and slashing gestures, which he initially writes off before switching gears with an elaborate story of loss that inspired the artist to create it. After this tale, the audience is ready to buy prints of the work, until James confesses that he’s lying; he himself painted it thoughtlessly. James has asserted his power as a critic, as a conveyor of meaning, to arouse interest in something without value.

This scene is intercut with moments in which James practices his lecture in a bathroom, a device that emphasizes the contrivance of his performance. James, then, has broken a cardinal rule of criticism that many critics are tempted to violate: to not dictate the terms of art-making. James’s elitism is so pronounced that he feels that virtually no one can tell the difference between “real” and “fake” art, and so he will take it upon himself to dictate reality in order to sell his writing and perhaps future derivative paintings, which he can render “good” through the power of his erudition, rationalizing, and gift for myth-making. James is a frustrated creative, like Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, who illustrates the potentially murky boundary separating the politics of the art industry from fraudulence. James has come to utilize notions of reputation and canon, which are complicated and dependent on class and power anyway, as bolsters of an elaborate shell game.

Bang is at ease with James’s un-likeability—and his confidence is among The Burnt Orange Heresy’s most reliable pleasures. As in BBC’s recent, uneven Dracula miniseries, Bang emits here an aura of boredom, intelligence, and mild amusement that could mask an abyss of cruelty; his handsomeness and peerless diction are subtly menacing. As such, we feel protective of Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debecki), a young woman who meets James at this lecture and quickly sleeps with him. Berenice also presents herself as tough, but Debecki allows you to feel Berenice’s effort, there’s nothing of James’s bitterness in her. Soon, they’re in Lake Como at the sprawling country home of art gallery owner Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), where James could land the assignment of a lifetime: an exclusive interview with reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a man of mystery who lives in a studio on Joseph’s estate. Joseph wants James to wrangle from the old man something he can sell.

Capotondi and Smith don’t allow this mother lode of backstory to overwhelm the film, as they whittle it down to a series of verbal duels, in which James, Joseph, and Jerome debate the semantics of art and art-creation against the gorgeous backdrop of Joseph’s estate. The Burnt Orange Heresy, the title of which is a despairing parody of critical pretension, is essentially a sun-dappled essay on male egocentrism. And, unlike many recent greed parables, it bothers to empathize with the draw of wielding power, of keeping the company of gorgeous and charismatic young women, and of walking into a room knowing everyone inside wants what you have. In other words, the film allows that we are complicit in privilege for our fascination and envy, and Jagger’s stunt casting opposite of Bang is an especial masterstroke.

Jagger is, of course, far more successful than even his character, and here he radiates an effortless cynicism and self-satisfaction, barely papered over with courtesy, which is deeply amusing and resonant. Joseph is a commanding, charismatic embodiment of privilege, and Jagger’s svelte wielding of his own legend-hood serves to put the comparatively unknown Bang up on his figurative haunches, a relationship between actors which embodies viscerally the relationship between their characters. James is a wannabe, whereas Joseph is a player.

Sutherland offers the audience a reprieve from the film’s central big-dick contest, giving Jerome a courtly decency that testifies to the optimism that can drive artistic creation, which can get lost among the politics of distribution, accumulation, and analysis. The truth of Jerome’s current artistic output isn’t a surprise, and it leads to acts of violence that are common of thrillers, somewhat compromising the film’s lingering, mysterious air of possibility. This routine plotting is a disappointment coming from Smith, who wrote the novel A Simple Plan as well as its screenplay adaptation, both of which tracked terrifyingly plausible descents into violence. However, The Burnt Orange Heresy ends on a lovely, bittersweet note, in which a piece of art finds an audience of one, who regards it with nothing more or less than the piercing human love that led to its very creation.

 Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland, Rosalind Halstead, Alessandro Fabrizi  Director: Giuseppe Capotondi  Screenwriter: Scott B. Smith  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 99 min  Rating: R  Year: 2019  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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