Fundamentally, all films are based upon lies and deception. We are expected to believe the stories that the actors tell and see the character they portray, not the actors, sets, cameras and microphones involved in creating a movie. We accept this deception as a foundational aspect of cinema. We see James Bond risking his life on the screen in Skyfall, not Daniel Craig pretending to be the fictional spy in a carefully scripted story.
The exciting arthouse thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy takes place in the world of art collecting, but is fundamentally also about lies and deception. It begins with art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) sharing a fascinating story about an unremarkable painting to a room full of tourists in Milan, Italy. He explains how after being forced to paint portraits in a Nazi concentration camp the artist vowed never to pick up a brush after being freed. The painting displayed is about the tragedy of the artists’ sister dying and was created without a brush. No surprise, the attendees find their appreciation for the painting grow significantly, just to have Figueras ultimately admit his story was a lie and that he painted the work himself. Everyone is disappointed and lose all interest in the painting.
The message is clear; it’s the story of the painting, it’s what you believe about the art that’s important. The tourists all leave rather disappointed, all but the lovely Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), who insists she loves the painting regardless of who painted it and what its true story is. She quickly establishes an intimate relationship with Figueras in one of the more startling transitions in modern cinema. Be prepared.
Figueras has a questionable history as a failed artist turned respected critic, including possibly certifying a forgery as an original painting, and his current situation is revealed to be that of a lacking even the most modest financial success. That might be about to change when wealthy art patron Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) invites Figueras to visit his home on Lake Como, presumably to catalog his extensive collection. Figueras invites Hollis to join him for what is sure to be a pleasant weekend in a beautiful setting.
But Cassidy doesn’t want his art collection inventoried, he wants the fiercely ambitious Figueras to acquire a painting from famous reclusive painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who lives in a modest, dilapidated house on the edge of the Cassidy estate. To entice Figueras and allow him to see Debney’s hoarded works, Cassidy offers Figueras an exclusive interview with Debney and a chance to become director of a museum. If only Figueras can figure out how to acquire one of Debney’s paintings.
Nothing is as it seems in The Burnt Orange Heresy, however, and everyone’s motivations are questionable. Did Cassidy hire Figueras because he knew Figueras would acquire the desired painting even if it meant doing something illegal? Does Cassidy care about the providence of the final painting? Is Hollis a random hookup or secretly in cahoots with Cassidy? For that matter, with no paintings in public view after a tragic gallery fire decades earlier, why is Debney considered a great artist? The latter gets to the heart of the movie, actually, because the fact that art aficionados believe he’s a great artist is sufficient unto itself for him to be considered one of the greats.
No surprise, there are multiple ways to interpret the unfolding story, quite a few surprise turns along the way and at least one or two shocking moments that will jolt you to full alert. It’s also snooty, pretentious and a bit snarky, poking fun at an art world where what you own is more important than how you got it or whether it’s real or a forgery. As the opening scene clearly states, it’s about what you believe when you look at art, not about the story of the artwork itself.
I really enjoyed The Burnt Orange Heresy and found it compelling and engaging. The performances were strong, particularly Mick Jagger who delivered a solid performance as a patron of the arts who is caught up with the collecting then appreciating the works in his collection. Most of the film was shot at Lake Como, Italy and it’s a truly stunning region that offers a respite from the scheming and continual plot twists. Recommended.
Dad at the Movies Note: Generally, this is a fine film for teenagers interested in learning more about the art work, but there are a couple of scenes (one intimate, one violent) that many viewers could find disturbing. It’s likely too nuanced for younger viewers anyway, so they won’t last past the first few scenes anyway.