This elegant and sophisticated crime drama opens with an excerpt from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that signals a descent into a version of hell, in this case one that is associated with the cut-throat world of contemporary art, its critics, collectors, and artists. ‘Art can’t exist without the critic’ is the film’s opening line and central argument.
Directed by Guiseppe Capotondi, with a screenplay by Scott Smith (based Charles Willeford’s best-selling novel of the same name), and cinematography by David Ungaro this essentially European film is part of a series of recent films that are about art and the artists. Other examples include Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Work Wiothout Author (2018), as well as Todd Hughes’ and P. David Ebersole’s House of Cardin (2019). In this case the dubious position of the art critic and collector is placed within a crime drama.
James Figueras (Claes Bang) is a relatively successful English art critic working in Milan. At one of his lectures he meets a beautiful American woman, Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) and they begin a highly passionate affair. Together they travel to the palatial home of art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) on the shores of Lake Como. On Cassidy’s estate lives the elderly and internationally acclaimed artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Debney has been living as a recluse and has not produced any work for many years. Cassidy employs Figueras to obtain one of Debney’s art works with the mutual benefit of Figueras having an interview with Debney that would significantly advance his career. Figueras and Hollis meet with Debney but things do not go the way Figueras desires; Debney seems more concerned with Hollis.
To say any more would give this intricate ‘cat-and-mouse’ game away; as Debney warns Hollis in regard to the various ‘mask’ we all adopt, ‘Nothing is what it seems’.
What makes this film so appealing is not only the beautiful locations and David Ungaro’s stunning cinematography but also Scott Smith’s sophisticated and clever screenplay. It is an eloquent debate about the moral worth of the art critic and collector as well as a chilling and engaging crime drama.
Perhaps, however, the main appeal of this film is the cast; which includes Mick Jagger in one of his rare film appearances as the charming and manipulative art collector, Cassidy, and Donald Sutherland as the wily artist, Debney. Claes Bang is also terrific as the volatile and ambitious art critic, James Figueras. It is, however, Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as Bernice Hollis who virtually steals the film.
Elizabeth Debicki is simply magnificent; building on her Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) this is a new true Australian ‘star’ now working in international film. Debicki’s Bernice Hollis is sexy, intelligent, powerful and moving; at time she is reminiscent of a young Ingrid Bergman or Isabella Rossellini. Whilst she shares the screen with all the other notable actors it is her scenes with Donald Sutherland that are the most memorable. This alone makes The Burnt Orange Heresy worth seeing.
The Burnt Orange Heresy opens today at various cinemas.
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