Context is everything when it comes to art, argues James Figueras (Claes Bang), a raconteur by heart and an art critic by trade early in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” describing a painting that can be seen as a suicide note in retrospect, pining for a lost love during the waning days of World War II. A rapt audience of tourists pay for the privilege of hearing Figueras give a lecture about what they should be able to see for themselves, and they’re clearly getting their money’s worth when they raise their hands in unison upon being asked if they would buy the painting, only for Figueras to admit that he painted it himself the night before, making the point of art being a subjective experience and while they may only be half-convinced (and certainly disappointed), it becomes apparent that while thrillers like Giuseppe Capotondi’s follow-up to “The Double Hour” usually aren’t considered high art, this one rises to that level.
Taking its setting in the cutthroat high art world more literally than most, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” finds Figueras at a low point when he’s only in the lecture circuit since he’s become all but unemployable as a journalist following a grave factual error confirming a forgery as a real work that sold for millions. Things are looking up, however, when he meets Bernice (Elizabeth Debicki), a woman decades younger than most of the senior set that attends his talk, and so taken with her after a night of passion, he invites her to come along to a villa in Lake Como where he’s been welcomed by Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), a wealthy patron who has lured him with the promise of a professional opportunity. The scenery is gorgeous, but the situation turns ugly once Figueras learns it involves the reclusive Joseph Debney (Donald Sutherland), who left the public eye decades ago and like J.D. Salinger has taken on an outsized place in its imagination after creating one singular work known as “The Empty Frame.”
There may be a stark contrast between the geographical beauty of the palatial Italian estate that everyone is staying at and the worst of human nature that emerges as Figueras is tasked with procuring a new Debney under the pretense of an exclusive interview, but screenwriter Scott B. Smith’s savvy adaptation of Charles Willeford‘s novel closes the gap between the surface of things and what’s lurking underneath as the green-eyed monster starts to consume all. Bang and Debicki make for an appropriately debonair and statuesque pair, but more importantly they measure up to each other as on-screen foils, always ready to ignite with the potential to burn one another to the ground. The presence of Sutherland and Jagger adds to the intrigue when both fit the bill well as art world elites who have long lived by their own rules, but make a host of unexpected choices in their performances that make them difficult for either Figueras or an audience to pin down. Although “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is as slippery as a just-caught fish, it’s presented with an elegance that goes to show how even the most unsavory of acts can be reframed in palatable terms and as its characters sink lower and lower, it deepens as a wicked entertainment.
“The Burnt Orange Heresy” opens on March 6th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood and in New York at the Landmark at 57 West and the Angelika.