Art and Fate Collide in THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY

Not a lot of paint-by-numbers here.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has so much of what arthouse audiences could want from a springtime offering. There’s a desperate man, a beautiful woman, colorful side characters, an exotic locale and the fascinating world they all find themselves in. Add in a touch of Hitchcockian storytelling intrigue and the kind of European art caper plot that recalls similarly-themed efforts from the 60s and 70s, and all the boxes seem to be ticked. Yet make no mistake, The Burnt Orange Heresy has its share of flaws which prevent it from ever becoming a modern-day North by Northwest or Charade. In fact, if the film suffers at all, it’s in a sketchily-written protagonist and a late in the game misstep which can’t help but leave a unmistakable bad taste. Still, this is the kind of lush indie that happily dallies in the darkness while managing a bit of the philosophical along the way.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi brings novelist Charles Willeford’s work to the screen with this story concerning renowned art critic James (Claes Bang), who has made a secret second career for himself as a forger. At a lecture promoting a book he written on a reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland), James meets the beautiful Bernice (Elizabeth Debecki) who challenges his ideas on art before falling into bed with him and causing him to admit his secret. Shortly thereafter, the pair find themselves invited to the Lake Cuomo residence of Joseph (Mick Jagger), a wealthy art collector who just so happens to be housing the famous artist James’s book is based on in a house on his property. Soon Joseph makes James a proposition: gain the artist’s trust enough to get a look at one of his paintings and copy it for a handsome sum, or risk being exposed as a fraud.

Any movie that’s labeled a mixed bag, is called that because the elements about it which do work find themselves at such undeniable odds with the ones that don’t. The Burnt Orange Heresy is such a case with facets competitively working for and against its success. As I mentioned before, there’s the lovely European setting and the backdrop of the art world, both complimenting each other as they work to create a dreamy setting. It’s the dreamy feeling which proves an unconventional, but oddly fascinating quality as The Burnt Orange Heresy takes a decidedly darker turn as some characters become more pensive and others more desperate. In another recent review, I commented on how the trade of a writer is one of the most unappealing professions to capture on film, from a visual standpoint. It’s simply not the most cinematic of acts to bring to the screen. The exact opposite is true when it comes to painters, and the film knows it. Watching as James feverishly works away at his canvas as passion and desperation both swirl inside his head make for some of the movie’s most exciting sequences. This is never more true than in the film’s third act. As James paints away, the notion of art and the artist’s soul being intertwined until the former has taken hold of the latter and is guiding it full-force towards an inescapable fate, is stunningly brought to life.

With the sweet comes the sour, however, as The Burnt Orange Heresy eventually ends up losing its way in an attempt to keep the suspense going and inject some action and twists into the proceedings. In a way it’s natural to want to spice up this film which, up until its third act, has largely consisted of people sitting around picturesque settings with glorious views behind them as they contemplate various philosophies of life. It’s all well and good, but there is a caper to attend to. The actual execution of the crime is handled well enough, but the sequence and everything that follows does bring to the surface everything wrong with James. As written, James is a pretty vague figure. He’s more or less confident and debonair, but not much else. Other than being non-committal (he and Bernice make the point quite clear that although they’ve been to bed together, they’re nothing more than new friends), the most distinguishable trait about James as a character is that he’s a perpetual pill-popper. Every other scene in the film has James popping one pill after another with Bernice usually bearing witness, sometimes judging him, sometimes not so much. While it’s a credible trait, it does nothing to make James feel like credible person, but rather a construct of an actual character waiting patiently to be created.

Maybe its because of the physical and ideological setting The Burnt Orange Heresy is based in that has made each member of the cast bring to the table a sort of deep romanticism that works in the film’s favor. Bang’s character is not an easy one to play, mainly because it’s so badly written. Yet the actor is skilled enough and knows how to employ his bag of tricks well to serviceable effect, that he manages to be more interesting than the man he’s playing. Debecki is luminous as a woman who keeps her guard up but can’t help but get pulled into the world she’s discovered as a way of trying to escape her past one. Jagger disappears from the film for long stretches at a time, which is a shame since he’s obviously relishing the darker, more playful aspects of his role. Finally, Sutherland’s character is so wise and weathered that he can’t help but speak in reflective phrases, all of which the actor seamlessly delivers.

There’s a bit of a double twist in the film’s final act which disrupts the nature of tone the film has so beautifully set and all but diminishes any faith or affinity we had in James in the scenes prior to this. Without giving anything away, the twists are violent and in their own way, quite upsetting. Yet the also prove so effective in all the wrong ways, that it almost makes you want to forget anything which came before, good or bad. But by the time the final scene rolls around, you realize that virtually everything which came before has proven necessary in a way. As James witnesses the results of his actions, we experience the film’s above-mentioned notion more than ever. In what is a stellar lesson in irony, The Burnt Orange Heresy ends us being a sort of literary nightmare which shows the horror of being trapped in the hell of one’s own creation and the macabre beauty it possesses.

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