March 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi
Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (which has an all-white cast) tells an intriguing story of secrets and lies in the privileged world of collecting fine art.
Culture Clash: It’s not uncommon for some of the characters to break laws in order to keep up appearances.
Culture Audience: “The Burnt Orange Heresy” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who like thrillers about social climbing and people who play guessing games about their true selves.
It’s utterly fitting that rare paintings are the fine art that’s the focus of the noir-ish thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Because just like a blank canvas, many of the characters in the film have personalities and identities that can shift on a whim and can be designed and painted over in a certain way, in order to be appealing to other people. The movie also takes a blistering look at the fickle and highly subjective nature of fine-art collecting, which places more value on brand names and how art pieces are marketed rather than on the art itself.
In the beginning of the story, which takes place mostly in Italy, viewers meet central character James Figueras (played by Claes Bang), a charismatic Brit who’s an art critic and author. He’s single and living alone living in Milan. The movie’s opening alternates between James giving a lecture to a group of about 50 people (mostly elderly tourists) and his cynical rehearsal of his lecture while he’s at home.
During his speaking appearance, James shows an abstract painting and tells a compelling story about the painting’s artist. James says the artist was a young Norwegian man named Nils, who was 16 when the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940. Nils and his twin sister Nora were kept in a concentration camp, and Nils’ portrait paintings for the Nazis were what helped keep the siblings alive. However, Nils was so ashamed that he was forced to do paintings for the Nazis that he vowed never to paint a human or use a paint brush again when he created paintings. (Nora tragically died of consumption in 1955.)
James then says that the painting he has on display during the lecture is the last painting from Nils. He then asks the audience how many of them would want to buy the painting. Nearly all of them raise their hands. James then reveals that he really did the painting, not Nils, and that almost everything he said about the painting and Nils is a lie. James then asks the audience how many of them would still want to buy the painting. Almost no one raises their hand, except for a young woman sitting in the back of the room.
James tells the audience that this deliberate hoax during the lecture was designed to show the audience how someone’s statement about art carries a great deal of weight in how art is valued. He says that it demonstrates the power of the critic and “why you should be careful around someone like me.” It’s a self-serving concept because James is the author of a book called “The Power of the Critic,” which he happily autographs for the tourists who buy the book after his lecture.
The young female tourist at the back of the room who was the only one to raise her hand after the hoax was revealed approaches James after the lecture. They flirt in a way that indicates that they’re sexually attracted to each other. Her name is Berenice Hollis (played by Elizabeth Debicki), and she’s an American visiting in Italy. After some more flirting, it’s no surprise that James and Berenice end up in bed together at James’ place.
The morning after, as Berenice gets ready to leave, she essentially tells James that she had fun, but she sees their encounter as a one-night stand. James offers her an “upper” pill from a stash he keeps in a pill bottle, and she takes the pill. James then tells her that he’s been asked to go to the Lake Como estate of Joseph Campbell (played by Mick Jagger, in his first movie acting role since 2002’s “The Man From Elysian Fields”), a wealthy art collector. James doesn’t really know why he’s been summoned to Joseph’s villa, but he thinks there’s a possible job opportunity in it for him. James impulsively invites Berenice to join him on the trip, even though they barely know each other. Without much hesitation, she says yes.
As James and Berenice take the scenic drive to Lake Como, a voice mail message being left at James’ empty home can be heard in a voiceover. The female caller leaving the message tells James that his check has bounced and to call her back to sort out the issue. All of this happens within the first 15 minutes of “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Viewers now know three more things about James: He’s got a drug problem, he’s got a money problem, and he’s got a problem with telling the truth. What could possibly go wrong?
When they arrive at Joseph’s grand villa and are waiting for him in the parlor, James comments to Berenice about the paintings hanging on the wall. He smugly comments that Joseph over-paid for one of the paintings, just as Joseph walks in and hears the tail end of the conversation. Despite overhearing James’ insult, Joseph greets them enthusiastically and sizes up his guests immediately.
It’s here that Berenice reveals more about herself than she did when she was alone with James, because Joseph is the one to ask Berenice about her background. Berenice says she’s from Duluth, Minnesota, but she’s vague about what she does for a living. It’s clear that she wants to fit in with her upper-class surroundings, and she might be hiding something about her past.
James and Berenice are invited to dinner with Joseph, who causally says that he married into wealth, and the estate really belongs to his wife, who’s away because she’s traveling with their children. In order to disarm his visitors, who clearly come from a different social class, manipulative Joseph has revealed that he doesn’t come from a rich family, so that his guests will feel more at ease with him. The tactic works. When James and Joseph are alone together, Joseph tells him the real reason why James was invited for a visit.
Joseph has a big secret: A famously reclusive painter has been living in the guest house on the property. Joseph makes James tries to guess who it is before he reveals the painter’s identity. The famous recluse is Jerome Debney, an American who’s somewhat described as the J.D. Salinger of the art world. Jerome had great success when he was young, but he stopped painting and disappeared at the height of his fame in 1968, after his life’s work was destroyed by a fire. Jerome has been such a recluse for years, that many people in the art world believe the rumor that Jerome is no longer alive.
But now, Jerome has been living in close proximity to Joseph, who doesn’t want the recluse to know that Joseph is aware of Jerome’s true identity. How has Jerome been able to make money for all of these years as a recluse? Jerome has been getting his income from grants, according to Joseph.
James has been summoned to the estate because Joseph wants James to try to get an interview with Jerome. And why was James chosen out of all of the art journalists in the world? One of Joseph’s servants had observed Jerome reading one of James’ articles and heard Jerome commenting out loud that James was an art critic whom he admired.
The interview has an ulterior motive: James is supposed to get close enough to Jerome to steal one of the secret paintings that Joseph is sure that Jerome has done while in seclusion. Joseph hasn’t actually seen any such painting, but he’s certain at least one exists. Joseph says that James will be richly rewarded for this theft, which Joseph plans to pass off as a long-lost Debney painting that might be the only one left in the world.
A skeptical James asks Joseph what’s in it for him if he can only get an interview with Debney, but not a painting. Joseph then turns sinister and tells James that he has to get the painting, or else Joseph will reveal information about James that could completely ruin James’ career. (The blackmail details won’t be revealed in this review.) Joseph also tells James that he knows about an embezzlement scandal from James’ past and that James is having financial difficulties because the scandal damaged his career. It’s why a disgraced James has been reduced to barely living in the margins of the art world by giving art lectures to tourists.
The most contrived part of this movie’s story is how James ends up meeting Jerome (played by Donald Sutherland), a man with a refined demeanor, a Southern lilt to his voice and a mysterious past. While James and Berenice are lounging out by the pool, Jerome happens to casually stroll into the pool area and strike up a conversation with these two strangers, as if he’s a neighbor popping over for a visit anytime he pleases. It’s very out-of-character for a man who’s supposedly been hiding from the world for decades, so viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jerome just conveniently walked into James’ life in this manner.
However, the movie’s plot isn’t about the search for Jerome, because he’s already been found. When Jerome first meets James and Berenice, Jerome doesn’t know if they’re aware of his true identity as a famous painter. But James can’t hide being star-struck, and he makes it clear that he knows exactly who Jerome is. In turn, when James introduces himself, Jerome recognizes him as the art critic he admires.
James doesn’t waste time in asking Jerome for an interview, but Jerome doesn’t say yes so easily. He makes James do swimming laps in the pool before he’ll give an answer. James is reluctant at first to do the laps, but Jerome tells him that the longer he hesitates, the more laps he’ll have to do to get the interview.
After he’s sufficiently humiliated James, Jerome surprises James and Berenice by inviting them on a boat ride, followed by a meal back at his place. Jerome says that James can interview him during this excursion. The reason for Jerome’s generosity has less to do with James and more to do with Berenice. Jerome is quite taken with Berenice and relishes spending more time with her. And if she’s with another man, so be it. It’s easy to see why Jerome, as a lonely old man who craves female companionship, would agree to do the interview if Berenice is part of the experience.
The interview is the catalyst for some tension-filled twists and turns in the story. More secrets are revealed, and more lies are told. And the resulting actions will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation. (The title of the movie is also explained during the story.)
Throughout the movie, director Giuseppe Capotondi skillfully conveys a tone to the movie that accurately reflects how pretentious the main characters are in the film. They appear to be casually blasé about their connections to the power and privilege in the world of highly priced fine art, but underneath, they’re all desperate for something.
James is desperate for a comeback that will make him and rich and famous. Joseph is desperate for a Debney painting that will considerably elevate Joseph’s status in the art world. Berenice is desperate for validation by people who are more sophisticated than she is. Jerome is desperate to find a human connection after years of isolating himself from the world.
All of the actors play their roles very well by convincingly portraying these superficial yet complicated people, who put on airs that they’re wonderful, yet in reality they’re all deeply flawed. Jagger, in particular, seems to take a delicious relish to his role, since he undoubtedly knows many people like Joseph Campbell. Sutherland (who is Canadian in real life) has played the courtly Southern American gentleman before, but his Jerome Debney character is a little more troubled than he first seems to be.
Bang (who is Danish in real life) has perhaps the movie’s most transparent character to viewers, since we see early on that James is prone to corruption, has a drug problem, and is in dire financial straights. However, the way Bang plays him, there are little glimmers of possibility that James isn’t completely selfish and he might actually be falling in love with Berenice. Debicki (who is Australian in real life) adeptly handles the nuances of her Berenice character, who will keep people guessing about her levels of morality and emotional intelligence.
“The Burnt Orange Heresy” screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on the book of the same name by Charles Willeford, changes the movie’s era and location from 1970s Florida to modern-day Italy. It’s a wise revision because a Lake Como estate is a more glamorous setting befitting a wealthy international art collector. And the art world has changed dramatically since the 1970s, because the stakes are much higher and the brand names of well-known contemporary artists have reached new levels of fame, thanks to the Internet.
At one point in the movie, Jerome talks about the proverbial masks that people put on to hide their true selves and present another version of themselves to the world. He admits to Berenice in a candid conversation how he’s one of those people who’s put on so many layers of masks, he might not know anymore who he really is underneath it all. More than the quest for a rare painting, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is about the lengths that people will go to keep putting on those masks and the desperation that results if one of those masks threatens to fall off.
Sony Pictures Classics released “The Burnt Orange Heresy” in New York City and Los Angeles on March 6, 2020. The movie’s U.S. release expands to more cities on March 13, 2020.