In The Square (2017), Ruben Östlund’s wicked send-up of the contemporary art scene, Claes Bang was a self-serving curator who couldn’t take a trick. In The Burnt Orange Heresy, Bang is back, as a louche art critic playing a dangerous game. It’s not uncommon for actors to get type-cast as tough guys, criminals or cowboys, but it would be unusual to be identified with contemporary art roles. How many movies about contemporary art would anyone want to watch?
As I’ve spent most of my working life writing about the visual arts I can’t help approaching these movies with a sceptical eye. The Square succeeded because Östlund took the routine absurdity of the art world and showed what could happen when a little too much reality was allowed into the mix.
Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy flirts with satire, but ultimately settles for a voyeuristic and rather fanciful version of the art business. Where The Square took us into the midst of that realm, Capotondi’s film remains on the outside looking in. Based on a novel by maverick crime writer, Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy is part mystery, part romance, but mostly nonsense. It starts off stylishly, but promises more than it delivers.
When we meet Bang’s character, James Figueras, he is in Milan, lecturing to a room full of American tourists. He flashes an image on a screen, beguiles the group with a story, then turns the tables. Such, he crows, is “the power of the critic”. James sees himself as a superior intellect – a Svengali able to manipulate his listeners at will, making them believe whatever kind of truth he’s peddling.
At the end of the lecture he is left alone with the last remaining member of the audience, a young woman named Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki). After a few minutes’ banter, they are in bed together. The pillow talk is cagey on both sides, concealing more than it reveals. Nevertheless, James is sufficiently smitten to take Berenice along on a weekend visit to Lake Como, where he’s been invited by the famous art collector, James Cassidy (Mick Jagger).
Jagger, in his first proper acting role in years, plays Cassidy as a smiling, sinister autocrat, whose unquenchable bonhomie is wrapped around a razor-blade. Cassidy throws light on James’s disreputable past, revealing how he was sacked from the editorship of a magazine for embezzlement – and that’s only for starters. In classic noir style, Cassidy offers James a chance of redemption if he’ll only add another small crime to his resumé.
Cassidy tells him the legendary artist, Jerome Debney, is living as a guest on his estate, but is unwilling to engage with his host or let him buy a painting. If James can secure one of Debney’s pictures, by means fair or foul, not only will he get an exclusive interview with the misanthropic maestro, but Cassidy will pull a few strings and help him become director of a major museum.
The elderly Debney (Donald Sutherland) turns out to be more friendly than anticipated, although he prefers Berenice to James. He talks on a variety of subjects, in an arch and sage-like manner, but is unwilling to unveil his work. When the eventual revelation does take place, all James’s expectations are exploded. In his desperation to salvage something for himself, he takes extreme measures which send the final part of the story into a rapid meltdown.
In the course of the movie we watch James’s persona deteriorate – at first by degrees, then in a landslide. Never especially sympathetic, he begins as a smarmy, self-important intellectual, but is soon exposed as an amoral character, a petty crook and a charlatan. By the end he is a complete head case. It’s not a flattering portrayal of the art critic – a job that bears no resemblance to whatever it is that James does.
The smiling Cassidy is closer to a villain from a James Bond movie than any collector one might ever meet, while Debney is exactly the kind of fictional painter that might be imagined by a writer who has never spent time with artists. Only Debicki’s character escapes from this hollow charade, as she is allowed to be an individual rather than a ‘type’.
I’m reminded of Cézanne’s disgust after he read Zola’s novel L’Œuvre (AKA. The Masterpiece), because the portrayal of the artist’s life was so far removed from his own experience. In the character of Debney there’s also a passing resemblance to Frenhofer, the creator of a mysterious picture no-one is allowed to see, in Balzac’s story, The Unknown Masterpiece (1831). Jacques Rivette adapted this fable for the screen as Le Belle Noiseuse (1991), surely one of the most tedious and pretentious movies of all time.
Somewhere in The Burnt Orange Heresy there’s a serviceable neo-noir struggling to escape the arty carapace, but something has gone wrong. The shots of Italy are fabulous, the production values are slick and there are passages of engaging dialogue, but it’s hard to get involved in a narrative in which the lead character makes a bad first impression that only gets worse. Neither is it ever made clear – or credible – why Debney enjoys such exalted status. One feels that Capotondi would like us to believe in the power and magic of art, if only to justify the drama that descends on the final scenes, but all his characters are game-players. As the masks begin to slip there’s nothing underneath.
The Burnt Orange Heresy
Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi
Written by Scott Smith, after a novel by Charles Willeford
Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland, Rosalind Halstead
UK/Italy, rated MA 15+, 99 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 August, 2020