There’s something perverse in seeing great actors doing great work in a film that has an extremely problematic script and plot. In the new release The Burnt Orange Heresy, directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and written by Scott B. Smith from the Charles Willeford novel, a collection of endlessly enigmatic actors that includes Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, and Mick Jagger breathe temporary life into, but can’t resuscitate this pretentious neo-noir script. Though there’s quite a history of masking men making bad choices, to the detriment of women around them, as nihilistic noir, that’s no excuse for lazily perpetuating that trope in cinema. That the original novel was released in 1971 suggests it should have remained in and of that time. I feel compelled to read it, as it’s considered a noir classic, and Elmore Leonard said of Willeford, “Nobody writes a better crime novel.” The movie version of the novel lets Willeford, and the actors that commit to his story, down.
Though it is beautifully filmed by cinematographer David Ungaro in languid shots that speak of deterioration both internal and external, there are a number of problems elsewhere. The Burnt Orange Heresy largely takes place at an estate on Lake Como, where anti-heroic art critic and drug addict James Figueras (Bang) brings a new sex-buddy, the leggy Berenice Hollis (Debicki) to meet art collector Joseph Cassidy (Jagger). They discuss an offer in which Figueras is asked to procure a painting from one of the most famous and most reclusive painters in the world, Jerome Debney (Sutherland), who lives in a ramshackle studio on the estate’s property. In exchange, he gets exclusive access to the world-renowned artist. How is Figueras meant to wheedle a painting out of him? Cassidy doesn’t care. He just disappears and leaves the couple to figure it out. Things go south in a way that might have been more compelling in the novel, but take place very slowly onscreen. What kindnesses that occur happen only between Hollis and Debney. Hollis is inexplicably self-destructive, and drawn to the insecure, greed-addled Figuaras, who treats her, and everyone around him, horribly. Is it that she can’t help herself and he can’t help himself? As an art gallery owner, my threshold for pretension is pretty high, and even I lost patience with the way in which these characters talk through the proceedings.
That’s not to say the actors don’t put in great work. So valiant is their effort, the film is nearly worth our time. Bang is watchable in almost anything, and he brings a complexity to the lead character that awakens curiosity in the viewer, if not compassion. Though at the core, her character is tragic, Debicki still finds a way to float through the film looking like the embodiment of a Robert McGinnis illustration. I’d question whether the nudity required of her furthers the plot, but at least we see someone whose body seems so unreal it’s almost like watching a walking work of art. Sutherland and Jagger are spot-on in their portrayals, as expected. Kudos to the uncredited casting director, and if that is to suggest that director Capotondi is singlehandedly responsible for the ensemble, good for him.
That being said, as a whole, The Burnt Orange Heresy should be the central teaching aid in a class called ‘Misogynistic Male Gaze 101’. As such, it should come as no surprise it was premiered as the closing film at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. I generally love Sony Pictures Classics releases, but in this case, unless fascinated by the prospect of watching actors trying to work their way out of a deeply-flawed script, give it a pass.
2 out of 5 stars