“The Burnt Orange Heresy” is a ham-fisted thriller with a cast so “on the nose” it shows little imagination on the part of the filmmakers, who seem determined to leave the viewer unchallenged.
But what it has going for it atones for those shortcomings.
It takes place in a villa on Italy’s gorgeous Lake Como, for starters.
Mick Jagger plays a posh, ruthlessly unscrupulous art dealer and collector. Claes Bang of “The Square” is a scrambling, unethical fraud of an art critic. Elizabeth Debicki of “Widows” portrays a mysterious, willowy and sexy siren with a possible hidden agenda.
And Donald Sutherland is a reclusive artist of legendary reputation and no “surviving” works for dealers to haggle over.
Not a stretch for any of them, especially Sutherland, who twinkles whenever he isn’t playing the heavy, and doesn’t so much speak as “intone,” especially in this part.
“May I be direct, in the modern way?” Jerome Debney, his character, never is. “A favorite spot of mine,” he says, showing a guest a rocky beach on the lake, “one must labor to apprehend it.”
Who talks like that? Archetypes on a novelist’s page, of course. But the plummy locutions, the pithy digs at art, artists, “legends” and critics can be a quotable delight, and often are in Scott B. Smith’s script, adapted from Charles Willeford’s book.
Bang is James Figueras, an art critic who scrapes out a living publishing reviews, here and there, and giving this cleverly calculated lecture to art fans and tourists in cities around the world.
He weaves this florid metaphor, critics as “the banks of a river,” with the river “art flowing between us.” Then he, with a slapdash-looking work of modern art as his prop, proceeds to weave a back-story for the painting that convinces the unsophisticated that no no, this is a work with meaning and genius behind it.
It’s all a ruse, a joke and a lesson. No, we shouldn’t care that Hemingway’s mommy dressed him like a girl or how much your indie film cost. The work’s merits should be manifestly obvious. But critics, and art dealers and collectors, traffic in “the myth” as often as what’s inside the frame. Beware of such “critics,” Figueras and the novelistwarn us. They’re manipulators of reality.
A brazen American (Debicki) approaches, flirts and confronts James with the word “liar” so quickly they’re bound to wind up in. “Berenice,” she says her name is. From “Duluth,” she insists. It’s “the telling details” in such lies that put them over, he notes. And he should know. He’s an expert.
Jagger is Cassidy, the art dealer who invites James — and by extension his “freshly minted” friend — to his villa on Lake Como, ostensibly to get the guy to write a gallery catalog or some such. But what slithery Brit really has in mind is something rarer. He’s housing a famous artist on his property, one whose works have all burned in gallery fires. He wants one of whatever Debney (Sutherland) has been working on.
And being the criminal once-removed type, Cassidy the collector blackmails James into “procuring” such, by whatever means the enterprising and unscrupulous “critic” deems necessary.
When the two outsiders meet the J.D. Salinger of painters, there’s no drama — just pretentious musings about “blue.” But with four people capable of lies and trickery involved, deceit and dares, death and destruction await.
Director Giuseppe Capotondi (the speed-dating thriller “The Double Hour” was his) can’t hide the story’s too-few/too-obvious secrets. So he wisely leaves this one to the cast, letting them turn the script’s anecdotes, reminiscences and unreliable “history” into fascinating word pictures.
This is a storyteller’s movie, one where we can’t really trust any story to be true. That’s something of a cheat, because we are set up to believe there are bigger deceptions going on and hidden agendas that simply don’t pan out or are left hanging.
Even the third act’s twists have a prescribed order about them.
But if you can’t revel in Jagger’s delivery of every I’m-rich-and-you-have-no-idea-what-I’m-capable-of smiled threat, you’re missing out.
“I should never let a thing’s worth obscure the value.”
If you can’t take pleasure in Sutherland’s boring tales from an artist’s past, anecdotes freighted with gravitas because a “great artist” mouths them, this might not be for you.
“I saw a blue once, genuine blue, you understand.”
And if you can’t hear the danger in all the sexy but unromantic banter between James and Berenice — “You treat serious things as if they’re trivial, and trivial things as if they’re serious.” — “The Burnt Orange Heresy” will be a mystery you won’t see the value in unraveling.
MPAA Rating: R, for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use and violence
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland
Credits: Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, script by Scott B. Smith based on the Charles Willeford novel. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:38