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A spiky romance laced with art-history references and the trappings of a sleekly elegant neo-noir, The Burnt Orange Heresy is a mutt of sorts but no less a pleasure to spend some time with — even if petting it might not be advisable. This classy adaptation of Charles Willeford’s best noir novel, originally published in 1971, changes the location from the Everglades to the shores of Lake Como, in Italy, where a European art critic and his American weekend fling visit a rich collector and meet the hermit artist who lives on his estate.
The feature starts off as a light-footed account of a deliciously prickly affair between two bright and funny people who have met their match before the story morphs into something much darker. A similar genre shift occurred in Italian film The Double Hour, so it is not a surprise that the director of that 2009 Venice best actress winner, Giuseppe Capotondi, was asked to make his English-language debut with this material. He does so quite confidently, even if the last act contains a few moments that strain credibility.
The Burnt Orange Heresy, which closed this year’s Venice fest, seems like prime material for a streaming platform, especially with a cast that includes not only the handsome and suitably inscrutable Claes Bang, from Palme d’Or winner The Square, but also whip-smart Australian gazelle Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) and, in extended cameos, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland.
The dark-haired and cocky Bang plays James Figueras (Jacques Figueras in the novel), a formerly esteemed art critic who finds himself giving badly paid lectures to American tourists in Milan about art and authenticity. One of the people who sneaks into such a lecture is Berenice Hollis (Debicki), a peroxide-blonde teacher from Minnesota on a European tour. Figueras’ talk is a display of rhetorical fireworks with several unexpected twists that serve several purposes in the fleet screenplay from Scott B. Smith, an Oscar nominee for the adaptation of his own novel, A Simple Plan.
Besides introducing several leitmotifs, the sequence showcases to what extent Figueras likes to use razzle-dazzle both to impress and to distract. It’s clear the man knows a lot about art criticism and art history but that all that knowledge has become the means to another end, namely to manipulate everyone around him for his own pleasure and benefit — though here the stakes are low and the game is rather innocent.
The display of intellectual prowess, packaged as a jaunty, offhanded divertissement but in reality rehearsed to the last letter as we’ve seen in the opening scene, intrigues Berenice. She’s fascinated by Figueras’ wit, intelligence and good looks, so it’s hard to blame her when she finds herself in his bed approximately five minutes after they have met.
It is in James’ spartanly decorated, powder-blue apartment that audiences will realize that perhaps it is not Berenice who got lucky but James, as she turns out to be a smart and quick-witted delight even without any preparation. Their shared, post-coital banter rivals the sharp and hilarious exchange that Bang had with Elisabeth Moss in The Square, in which he also played an art connoisseur. Here and in the following scenes, in which James takes Berenice to the picturesque lakeside palazzo of eccentric art collector Joseph Cassidy (Jagger, doing a heightened version of Jagger), there’s a sense that Capotondi and the actors could have just as easily made a comedy-drama about the sex and romantic banter of two gorgeous people against an equally stunning backdrop.
But that is not this film, or at least, not for its entire running time. The reason Cassidy has summoned Figueras is revealed in a conversation that makes it clear that the oddball Londoner has done his research on his guest, a fully fluent English speaker who is clearly Scandinavian — those esses can’t fool anybody — and who hopes to get a job out of his visit to Lake Como. But it turns out the critic has, if not quite complete skeletons, at least some bones in his closet.
This is where Cassidy sees an opportunity to get what he wants without getting his hands dirty. All he needs to do is will the Tom Ripley Effect into existence, as he manipulates the proud Figueras into covering up his minor crime with a slightly bigger one. Thankfully — for the viewer more than some of the players involved — things then spiral further out of control.
The tool used by Cassidy is the artist living on his estate, Jerome Debney (Sutherland), a hermit painter whose continued output has already vanished in flames several times. Debney wants one of his paintings from his locked atelier before another fire might occur. In order to get in touch with the mysterious man, Figueras is promised an interview with the recluse, which would be a possible way to get his career as an influential critic back on track. As if by magic, Debney makes an appearance not much later. And his Nestor-like bearing and way of speaking, milked to the last drop by Sutherland, charms both James and Berenice, even if Figueras is very aware that he needs to manipulate what little time he has to get what he’s been asked to deliver.
Given the foreshadowing nature of the opening, the turn into darker territory feels like a change of pace that’s nonetheless logical. But there are some issues that are not satisfactorily resolved. The main problem is that Berenice (and also Debicki!) is clearly at least as smart as James, so a few last-act twists are hard to stomach. The screenplay and the actors ooze charm as well as intelligence early on but the second half is more like a sleek thriller, something that’s efficient but less jocular and surprising. One of the work’s main thematic concerns — namely, how well do we really ever know others and how does the fact that we all lie complicate this matter — also seems to evaporate as The Burnt Orange Heresy draws to a narratively satisfying but thematically somewhat underwhelming close.
Finally, Capotondi also seems a little too enamored of an alleged art-historical metaphor for sin, which feels more like it’s been layered on top of the narrative than properly tied into it. Thankfully, his actors and the superb production values, including Craig Armstrong’s shimmering, piano-driven score, still make this an attractive overall package.
Production companies: Achille Productions, Hanway Films, MJZ, Zephyr Films, Indiana Production, Wonderful Films, Rumble Films
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Rosalind Halstead, Alessandro Fabrizi
Director: Giuseppe Capotondi
Screenplay: Scott B. Smith, based on the novel by Charles Willeford
Producers: David Zander, William Horberg, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Sienna Aquilini, Ayesha Walsh, Stephanie Wilcox, Dante Ariola, August Zander, Jon Shiffman, Jonathan Loughran, Alastair Burlingham, Charlie Dombek, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib, Fabrizio Donvito, Daniel Campos Pavoncelli, Alessandro Mascheroni, Peter Touche, Vaishali Mistry, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart, Peter Watson, Aris Boletsis
Cinematography: David Ungaro
Production design: Toto Santoro
Costume design: Gabriela Pescucci
Editing: Guido Notari
Music: Craig Armstrong
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of Competition — Closing Film)
Sales: Hanway Films
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