Arts movie review

‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’: not everybody’s a critic

Your typical Faustian thriller… with an artistic twist

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Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki’s chemistry shines in Giuseppe Capotondi’s latest film, ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy.’
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Burnt Orange Heresy
Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi
Screenplay by Scott Smith
Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland
Rated R, Release Date TBD

Sizzling romance. Lavish estates. European backdrop. Default British people for an English movie set in Europe. The Burnt Orange Heresy reads like your classic summer getaway thriller, yet it somehow doesn’t quite fall victim to the many predictable clichés of similar films. Instead, it falls victim to its own premise — the power of the critic.

James Figueras (Claes Bang) is an art critic who, after some questionable transactions, has fallen from his glory days and is relegated to lecturing elderly tourists in Italy about his book, The Power of the Critic, which serves as the underlying foundation for the film. In this lecture he successfully convinces his audience that an artwork painted by his amateur hand is actually that of a famous artist, illustrating the persuasiveness that comes with some verbose story and the credibility of a scholar. Through that presentation, he meets Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), a small town woman from Duluth, Minnesota. James and Berenice have intense chemistry from the beginning, so much so that James invites her to a stay with a wealthy art collector, Mr. Cassidy (Mick Jagger), on his vast estate. Mr. Cassidy, familiar with James’s background, offers him a lucrative deal: an interview with the famous but reclusive James Debney (Donald Sutherland) in exchange for stealing one of Debney’s paintings — fame for a little art theft — an offer a man like James simply cannot refuse. 

The plot itself is certainly intriguing if a bit commonplace. A protagonist who has seen better days meets a girl, gets an enticing offer from some wealthy benefactor, and then does something he shouldn’t. It is a very predictable storyline from a general standpoint, but its twists hold originality and are rather thrilling. This, however, is a very plot-driven movie. Though the actors themselves are admirable, their characters are rather one-dimensional. They seem to have been constructed more to drive the plot than to actually function as fully fleshed out personalities. The few attempts to show-not-tell ultimately don’t contribute anything substantial, and the film could have easily done without the one phone call or the reoccurring pills. Sure, each character has their own backstory, conveyed through one or two conversations, but those backstories seem to exist for the sake of adding depth, however artificial it may be. Each character serves one specific purpose, nothing more, nothing less. 

There is nothing really remarkable about the film. It tries to compensate with sweeping views of the sprawling Cassidy estate located in Italy, and honestly it worked better than expected. It’s a very visually appealing film mainly because of its setting. Given that the director is Italian, the backdrop makes more sense, but this does not make it any less gimmicky.

The most alluring aspect of the film is not the scenery, but rather the laudable performances of the cast. Bang gives James just the right amount of charm and psychosis, creating a man you would want to be around until the lights go out. Bang and Debicki have such a magnetic chemistry that it’s easier to believe that their characters would really elect to go on a road trip together after knowing each other for only two days. Jagger is surprisingly commendable in his role as the affluent collector, conceiving an almost conniving personality as someone you’d take precautions against, completely opposite Jagger’s rockstar persona. Sutherland is no less stellar as Debney — they’re similar characters in a way, as both are just enjoying life after a long career in the spotlight.

In a film about art, and specifically one centered around an art critic, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair share of pretentious dialogue. And while a little pretension never hurt anyone, it does begin to bore a little as the film draws on, especially with the accents. Fortunately, the script mellows out, and there are actually some hidden gems within the generally ornate speech.

However, the biggest flaw of the film is due to its general premise: with the right words and execution, anyone can be deceived into believing, especially with art. A few paint blobs here, and a few brushstrokes there, the work ends up on your parents’ fridge. Slap a famous artist’s signature on it, and the work ends up as the centerpiece in an art gallery. Critics will eat up anything put out by someone of acclaim and attach overcomplicated meanings to it, even if it is an empty frame or a blank canvas, and audiences likewise will eagerly consume those interpretations. Meanwhile, the artist themself is essentially reduced to only their name. Art takes itself too seriously in Burnt Orange, and that in large part is due to the critics’ desire to derive some sort of meaningful message from each work they encounter. So perhaps it is ironic for me to be critiquing such a film — a film that seemingly should be enjoyed uncritiqued and unanalyzed. Burnt Orange wants everything to be simple, but in doing so, it ends up making itself a tad too complicated and self-reflective. It wants to poke fun, but it only ends up poking holes in itself.

The arguments brought up in the film naturally lend themselves to their own trains of thought: is an artist doing a disservice to the world by not sharing their work? Do they owe it to society to keep creating and sharing those creations? Why do we put so much faith in the words of critics who are just fans with a platform to espouse their opinions? As these questions arise, you can’t help but muse over them for the rest of the movie and a little after. It’s difficult to make a simple film about such open-ended thoughts — Burnt Orange thought it could do it but fumbled its attempt.

The Burnt Orange Heresy is an entertaining thriller fit for a lazy evening lounging about or a fun hangout with friends. It’s a film fraught with romance and deception and the occasional plot convenience. The questions it raises hold a bit more weight than the film intends to carry, but who am I but another (albeit much less credible) critic spouting my opinions on some corner of the interwebs?