The Burnt Orange Heresy
Giuseppe Capotondi, director
Scott B. Smith, script based on the novel by Charles Willeford
Starring: Claes Bang (James Figueras), Elizabeth Debicki (Berenice Hollis), Mick Jagger (Joseph Cassidy), Donald Sutherland (Jerome Debney)
Set in Milan and the gorgeous landscape surrounding it, The Burnt Orange Heresy plunges viewers into the fascinating and pretentious world of high art. We see James Figueras (Claes Bang), a quintessential striving European intellectual, flogging his book The Art of the Critic to a group of aficionados when he meets the smartest girl in the room, Berenice Hollis, an American, who likes free potato chips and perhaps art. Figueras proceeds to seduce the room by explaining the tragic reasons why an unknown Scandinavian painter has created an abstract masterpiece—and then demonstrates the role of the critic by announcing that his story is a lie. All leave dissatisfied except Berenice, who wants to know more about the outrageous Figueras. Soon, she is seduced by his duplicitous chatter and good looks, which she more than matches—in both aspects.
Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi’s take on a tough American thriller by cult novelist Charles Willeford is filled with beguiling double-talk about art, stories and relationships. We’re never sure what Berenice thinks of James or he of her. They test each other while others admire their beauty, which fits perfectly not only in Milan but in the nearby palatial estate of art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger.) There, among the art and fine food offered in his ancient chateau, Cassidy seduces Figueras with an offer of fame and fortune if he can garner a painting by the legendary artist and recluse Jerome Debney, who is staying in a cottage on the grounds.
A word, then, about the acting in this stylish tale of disbelief, sex. loyalty and betrayal. The Danish actor Claes Bang, whose international fame came through his portrayal of a Swedish art curator in The Square, is suitably charismatic and mysterious as the critic and potential thief Figueras. He’s more than matched by Australian Elizabeth Debicki as Berenice, whose Midwest American accent is uncannily precise and who shares confidences with others but not with Figueras. Mick Jagger, never a great actor, is perfectly cast as Cassidy while Canadian legend Donald Sutherland, a true thespian, is terrific as the enigmatic Debney.
Great caper films often drag in the middle, after the premise for a robbery or another misdeed is played out, and before a sure-fire ending offers a satisfying conclusion. Here, that drift downward doesn’t take place thanks to Donald Sutherland’s Jerome Debney, a painter who mesmerizes James and Berenice, while thwarting expectations. In the final quarter of the film, an ending is reached that is more than acceptable in the ironic downbeat nature of film noir.
The Burnt Orange Heresy won’t appeal to everyone. Parts of It are unsparingly brutal. But this intelligent and well scripted film is true to its noirish roots and is fascinating to view. Not for everyone, just like Willeford’s novels, it will appeal to the cognoscenti, just as does abstract works of art.
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Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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