dir: Giuseppe Capotondi
It’s… There’s… Hmmm.
I enjoyed most of this flick, and then it flies off the rails in a way that makes it overall less satisfying? I try to make the first sentence in a review punchy and eye catching, but it’s a bit of a catastrophe, this time. It’s hard to pin point exactly where things go wrong – actually, no, it’s not hard at all. There’s an exact moment where the audience has to say out loud “what bullshit”.
The Burnt Orange Heresy wants to be a good film. There’s a good film lurking under the surface. It certainly wants to be and look classy. It starts with a jerk (Claes Bang) practicing a speech that he’ll be delivering to a group of wealthy middle aged middle class American tourists, but in Milan, somewhere. There’s no suggestion that the main character is Italian. I mean, the main character’s name I’m guessing is Spanish, the lead actor is Danish, his love interest is played by an Australian, and it’s got Mick Fucking Jagger in it and Donald Sutherland. Who else could you possibly need?
The opening is incredibly successful. James delivers a speech to these tourists, upon which he takes them on an incredible journey, of not giving a fuck about something, about giving an incredible fuck about something, and then giving them a pointed lesson in both the power of an art critic and how you shouldn’t believe everything they say. It is an incredible opening scene, a perfect distillation of stating your film’s thesis (art critics are bad and desperate people), setting up the themes for the film, and within the span of exactly 8 minutes, you’ve gone from the opening image, had an entire marathon of emotional rollercoaster rides, been chastised for falling for it, then he’s face down giving a woman head back in his apartment, all in record time.
You have to appreciate such ruthless and effective efficiency. The rest of the flick isn’t paced so crackingly, but that’s okay.
During that opening salvo, our art critic shows people a slide of a painting. He tells them they don’t care about the painting, it’s boring. It’s nothing.
And then he does the classic showman’s bullshit of “but what if I told you…” and then unleashes a complex and arresting story about two Norwegian twins, caught by the Nazis for helping the Resistance during the war, shipped to Buchenwald, and their horrifying experiences there, and how they contributed to the art these plebs are now looking at with eyes anew.
He asks them now, so how many of you want to buy a print of that image, and every hand in the room shoots up.
He then tells them, “well, actually…”, deconstructing the carefully rendered fiction that he just served up to them, asking again how many still want a copy of the painting.
Only one hand remains aloft as the other oldies chuckle, a young woman from Minnesota, being Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki).
She and James argue for a brief bit, and of course she has sex with him. 8 minutes! This all only took 8 minutes.
I’m still in awe of that kind of editing, that level of determination to have a sex scene, pretty much the only one in the film, in the first 8 minutes of the flick. That is some dedication to your beliefs, that is. That is… the absolute conviction that if people don’t see a guy in his 50s pretending to have sex with a woman in her 20s within the opening minutes of a film, they’re never going to bother to watch the rest. They’re outta there, or they’ve stopped streaming it, and started watching something else already.
I kept watching, of course, because I was more curious as to where the story was going to go. Despite knowing each other a few minutes, James invites her along to a gig he has. He’s been invited to the estate of some mega wealthy arsehole at Lake Como in order to at least in theory perhaps interview a living legend of the art scene that no-one has seen in decades.
The rich arsehole is played by Mick Jagger, in case you couldn’t have guessed, and as should come as no surprise to you if you’ve heard anything about Mick Jagger over the last, I dunno, 60 years or so, it’s that he is a rich arsehole who basically does whatever the fuck he wants. And that sums up the character he plays, too. He’s not only mega wealthy, like with butlers and servants and such, but he’s also powerful within the art world, of which James is one of those desperate remoras that tries to latch on to the successes of others in order to feed. Joseph Cassidy (Jagger) is the great white shark above.
James is knowledgeable and respected within his field, but Cassidy enjoys fucking with him (not literally, though he’s so rich he could probably manage it), because what Cassidy knows that we didn’t up until now, is that James is quite dirty, morally speaking. Cassidy is charming and polite as hell, but his manner does anything but put people (or the audience) at ease.
Probably like Jagger in real life. I haven’t been able to form an independent picture of him in my mind ever since I watched a John Mulaney stand up special where he talked about working as a writer at Saturday Night Live, and Jagger was going to be the guest host that week. What Mulaney relates is that Jagger is such a rich jerk and has been for so long that he is no longer bound by the same social niceties that the rest of us take for granted as a part of general human discourse and interaction.
Mulaney and the other writers would pitch jokes or bits to him, and he would bellow at them “NOT FUNNY!!!!” as rudely as humanly possible, or even just resorting to flat “NO”s and “YES”s as he saw fit. If he wanted a drink he would extend his hand, bellow “DIET COKE” and one would somehow materialise within it.
It’s that level of privilege Mick brings to this role, with all the arrogance and swagger of the ‘character’ he sings as in Sympathy for the Devil. I am not entirely convinced that he’s not playing the devil or a devil of the art world here, or that he is not one in real life.
This is not a supernatural thriller, as far as I can tell, but there is a level of paranoia at play: there’s also something not quite right about James’s energy. Including within those vaunted 8 minutes at the beginning that I keep obsessively referring to, and throughout the movie, James keeps popping these pills he keeps calling ‘uppers’, which is not what people have called such things since the 80s, but he does seem to be addicted to something that is deranging his senses and making him paranoid. Some stray comments from Cassidy have him doubting Berenice’s whole deal, so much so that he wonders whether she’s too good to be true. Even though she’s done nothing to warrant that paranoia, and is probably the only person in the story without an agenda.
The ultimate carrot that Cassidy has dangled before our protagonist is the possibility of recording an interview with a notorious recluse of the art scene called Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who has reached a legendary status not because of his art but because of the absence of his art. A fire destroyed his output when he was part of the Paris scene, and a second fire made his stuff (the only surviving piece is an empty frame, which is like his John Cage 4’33) even more exclusive. Cassidy has him living on his estate like some kind of pet, with the expectation or hope that if he produces something new finally, it will be the single greatest painting in the history of the world.
Debney ‘likes’ James after reading one of his pieces in an art mag, and agrees to a meeting, and is quite taken with the young Berenice, and agrees to be interviewed but not electronically. He also, begrudgingly agrees to let James see what he’s been working on.
Now, Berenice and Debney’s interactions are quite charming. They don’t really want anything from each other, they just kind of like each other, but in a pleasant, somewhat guarded way. Thankfully, for once Sutherland doesn’t give off any pervy old guy energy, he seems genuinely charmed by her and her responses, and only offers the kind of old coot advice that all old people feel compelled to share with the young. They are at opposite ends of their lives, you would hope, which allows them to bring their perspective to the other without fear or favour.
She, weirdly enough (though it’s not that weird, I mean considering that James is a chancer and hack on the desperate make) seems to appreciate Debney more than James does, who finds himself increasingly frustrated with the old man. When Debney gives his big reveal of what he’s actually been working on all these years, it’s only after an argument James and Debney have about the meaning of the paintings in the cave at Lascaux: did the early humans who daubed the images of animals on the wall of a cave do so with the intention that others would one day see their efforts, or that they would be forever hidden? James argues that Debney practically owes it to the world to share his art with him, whereas Debney, well, he has different impulses.
If you end up watching this film, and it wouldn’t be a terrible way to spend your time, I would argue thus: if you’re surprised by the big “reveal” by Debney, then, without trying to be too much of a dick about it, I would argue that this is probably the first movie you’ve ever seen in your life and I’d also like to sell you the Westgate Bridge for only $1000, though I’m only accepting payment in bitcoin transferred through my friends in Nigeria. Only serious bidders should apply.
What follows is…interesting, in a number of ways, mostly because we’re given plenty of hints as to which way someone like James would break given the chance, and also that his level of desperation and his constant signaling to Berenice that he’s pretty much a piece of shit and that she knows nothing about him. Also, got to say, the film at this point totally flies off the fucking rails.
I know that I shouldn’t fault it for being this way, for going this way, because it going this way was foreshadowed long, long before, probably within those first 8 minutes I was telling you about. It’s just that I feel like it shouldn’t have devolved in such a hackneyed way. I have to think that a really unfair thing that happens to one of the main characters, could have been done in a better way within the context of the film and how it feeds into the ending.
I say this because it’s one thing to set out a path for a character to follow, to set them up with motivations both great and tiny, and to colour their judgement in a number of ways, and it’s another entirely to force them down that path in the dumbest and most nonsensical fashion possible. Two characters end up doing progressively dumber things in order to get the story where it needs to go: the world celebrates the almighty Art Critic above all other Art Critics, being James, and all it required was a few sacrifices along the way.
But to get there you need: a character that is almost murdered has to survive, and almost forget just what happened to them a few minutes ago, in order to trust the person that still plans to kill them, giving them a second chance to do so at their leisure, which they do.
And then, said murderer wonders “what’s the best place I can think of to stash a body? I know, I’ll go back to the place I just left where I was seen by countless people, to a location I can easily be traced to, in order to stash the body in a foot of water. Best murder plan ever!”
I have to believe that the characters in the original Charles Willeford novel were a bit smarter than what we get here, but I’ll be generous and grant that maybe it was just easier to have these characters do all these dumb things just to wrap things up already *taps watch*.
For my money Elizabeth Debicki, Australia’s Own Elizabeth Debicki, and Donald Sutherland are pretty wonderful in this flick. I would have enjoyed it just as much if it had been the two of them hanging out on the shores of Lake Como chatting about stuff for 90 minutes. She brings a real openness, and wariness to a character that ultimately is underserved by the story. The main guy probably puts in an okay performance, but I can’t tell, because I’m still so angry at him. No-one can tell if Mick Jagger was actually acting in this, but also no-one has the guts to tell him to his leathery, Pepe the Frog-like face.
Some of the reviews refer to this as a satire of the arts world, and I would argue that such a statement is meaningless to most of us. Even those of us who have gone to gallery openings or have friends or family in the arts world, either as practitioners or academics or both, just because we’ve had some cask wine at an opening doesn’t mean we know anything about the high end bullshit where people are paying multi millions for a David Hockney shark suspended in formaldehyde. You can’t satirise that level of crap because that’s like satirising yachts or golden toilets – it’s not part of our lives and what little we know about already looks fucking ridiculous. It’s a story about a guy who’s a jerk, and was probably always going to find a way to be a jerk independent of the opportunities afforded to him. When the devil comes along to tempt someone like James, he’s already started signing his name on the contract in his own blood before he’s even been told what he’ll be getting for his troubles.
While I didn’t like the way things ended up, I can’t argue that it doesn’t work for this story. And it’s an awfully mean, nasty story, but it’s not without its merits. The arts world is one I can live without, but there is always something to be said for those that sell their souls for something as worthless as money or fame, and to be left with less than they had before. And all they needed was a tiny bit of kindness and patience, and they could have had everything…
7 times and it’s got such a fascinating, meaningful title as well out of 10
“It’s masks all the way down by now.” – The Burnt Orange Heresy.