There’s a moment in The Burnt Orange Heresy when everything goes wrong and the film starts to truly unravel our anti-hero. It is quite a shocking moment and while viewing the film it almost feels too abrupt, a hard shift that comes out of nowhere. Yet as the movie simmers in your mind and its complexities and characters unfold you realize that its shift was boiling just under the surface the entire time waiting to be discovered.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is, for better or for worse, the epitome of a slow burn. The kind of movie that winds you up inch by inch in its thoughts and themes and then suddenly dumps you into the thriller you thought you were coming to in the first place. It’s a neo-noir masking as an art history lesson, beautifully deconstructing the male anti-hero while doing the same thing to the concept of art itself. Does it always succeed? Well, much as the film posits, that’s up to the person defining it.
The Burnt Orange Heresy
Director: Giuseppe Captondi
Release Date: August 7, 2020 (Theatrical)
The movie begins closer to a romance than anything else. James Figueras (an often naked Claus Bang) is a down on his luck art critic who meets Berenice Hollis (and often naked Elizabeth Debicki) at one of his lectures for American tourists in Italy. Its a meet-cute for the ages and he quickly invites her to a weekend away at the home of millionaire Jake Cassidy (Mick Jagger). Jake has invited James there to aid him in obtaining a painting from renowned artist and recluse Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), hanging riches and a bit of blackmail over James’ head. James and Berenice befriend Debney but when it turns out the artist destroyed his own work and hasn’t painted in years as an artistic statement things start turning for the worst.
This is a neo-noir through and through, except its more interested in unpacking the noir genre than referencing it. Its oh-so-slow build, despite having a relatively short run time, plays into the delicate crafting of tension the genre is known for. Berenice, our femme fatale, is not quite what she seems to be, as any good femme fatale turns out to be, but she isn’t what one would think either. At every turn, Capotondi shows a reverence and understanding of the genre while helping to redefine it as well. It is a delight to watch the movie take tropes and twist them into wicked new things.
Deconstruction of noir isn’t the film’s only takedown, however. It is also a deep dive into how we appreciate and understand art itself. In fact, simply by reading this review and me helping you define the film we’re playing into the movie’s themes. Jerome Debney’s disregard for his own work and James’ work as a critic/conman are tied together into ideas of art and creation, driving an underlying current of tension between the viewer and the film that only erupts as the film’s conclusion arrives.
The cast is stunning, of course. Even Mick Jagger, either through sheer charisma or actual acting talent, nails his near cameo appearance. Claus Bang (what a name) sizzles in this film, smoldering like Clive Owen’s evil twin throughout. At first, he plays James’ casual indifference as charming. James and Berenice trade quick-witted barbs and refer to each other in twee nicknames like they accidentally broke free from some mix of His Girl Friday and The Maltese Falcon. However, as the movie unfolds so does Bang’s performance, layering a slowly creeping desperation behind the aloof nature that eventually consumes the character until the film’s final, suspenseful moments.
Those last moments, by the way, aren’t some prolific showdown or thrilling conclusion. They are the threads of a well-crafted story being pulled together and then apart. The tension comes not from physical activity or high stakes but from a sequence that reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” I say no more so that I can preserve the movie’s slowly twisting and unfolding storyline but the film ends in a way that it could almost be the beginning of another movie.
The Burnt Orange Hersey isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s slow to unpack and its characters are blurred lines of good and bad. It’s full of subtle and obvious visual metaphors that don’t always hit you until hours later. This is a film that forces you to think, shocks you with its callousness, and then dumps you out wondering if you liked it at all. Well, as James points out in the film, it’s my job as a critic to tell you that you did… or you will once you watch it.