The Burnt Orange Heresy
A First Half With Truly Fascinating Questions on Art is Imbalanced With a Turn into a Thriller
The value of art is something that has been explored since the creation of painting as far back as the first cave drawings. Film has tried to explore how and why we value art since its first inception as well, from Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or (1930) to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and up until today with The Square (2017) and Velvet Buzzsaw (2019). This is a subject so deeply philosophical and subjective that there could be infinite perspectives and takes on it. Thus, The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) is yet another welcome exploration into the art world, and surprisingly not a film about a certain political figure.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is the story of an art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang), who is invited along with his recent fling Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) to a wealthy art collector’s home in Italy. This art collector, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, yes that Mick Jagger), is harboring veteran artist, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who is incredibly recluse, and due to a series of fires at his studios none of his art has ever been seen by other human beings. Thus, Cassidy employs Figueras to try and see Debney’s art and try and get a painting from him.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is the first film from director Giusseppe Capotondi in nearly ten years, and yet it seems to be infused with an incredible amount of energy. The first half of the film is certainly the best with the discussions and arguments about art being brought to the fold, of how we viewers assign value to specific pieces due to their context and authorship and not their individual merit. This brings about a curious discussion of the true value that art critics have. Critics allow people to see pieces with a further context and an expert eye, but if such an effort is needed in order to appreciate a painting, is it truly an effective piece? These are the questions brought forth and discussed during the beginning of the film, and which grasp viewers due to their truly intriguing nature. One really doesn’t have to focus much on the narrative itself, which is littered with great performances and line deliveries from the entire cast.
However, it is in the second half that this delicate bubble of such philosophical questions is slightly burst. Capotondi swerves the narrative very abruptly into a thriller that contrasts violently with what had been shown up to that point. This change need not have been so disturbing to viewers, but Capotondi doesn’t take the time to set up character frustrations or plant the seeds for a possible outburst. This makes for the rhythm change to be rather incongruous with the rest of the narrative and rather uninteresting as well, since we haven’t really grown to understand our characters’ perspectives enough. While Figueras is the supposed protagonist of the film, I was much more interested in the vague and mysterious past of Berenice, so efficiently performed by Debicki. It is in the mystery of her character that perhaps an unwarranted reflex could have kicked in to explicate the morphing into a thriller; alas Capotondi chooses to have Berenice only as a side-character and focuses on the much less interesting Figueras.
In the end, The Burnt Orange Heresy is a rather fascinating watch for its first half reflections and questions that it brings up. The second half thriller isn’t as involving and seems to come out of nowhere providing some answers that needn’t have been given to viewers. I found the greatest enjoyment to be in the open-ended questions the film left, having their pondering amongst viewers be the greatest reward of the film. Certainly, one could keep writing and dissecting the different concerns that The Burnt Orange Heresy brings up, but that would prove to be a much larger essay and stray from the actual qualifications of the film and into the abstract world of art in general.