No Expectations

Philippa Snow on Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019)

Giuseppe Capotondi, The Burnt Orange Heresy, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 99 minutes. James Figueras, Berenice Hollis, and Joseph Cassidy (Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, and Mick Jagger).

IN AN EARLY SCENE in The Burnt Orange Heresy, Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang are sharing a postcoital cigarette, their chemistry as smoldering as its cherry tip. He is James Figueras, an ambitious and self-centered art critic whose face, at fifty-something, has the lived-in patina of a fine bronze worn down by bad weather; she is Berenice Hollis, a young, blonde American with a Modigliani build and the affectless, steely manner of an old-school femme fatale. The two have just met, and fucked, and they are talking about what might happen next in their affair: “A week from now, I’ll be planning our wedding,” he says, in his gravely European way. “Then I’ll take you to an opening, and as I look across the room, I’ll see you talking to this broad-shouldered sculptor with big hands. And as you leave with him, you’ll wave. And I’ll climb to the top of the Duomo and throw myself off.” Bernice, who may be blonde and American but is certainly not dumb, thinks something else: “You’re going to make me your whore,” she says, fiddling casually with her necklace. “I’ll be turning tricks to support you while you visit your galleries, and you write your articles, and you sip champagne with your high-class friends.”

She smirks, and so do we: Unlike most movies about art, this one at least knows that one does not get into art criticism to get rich. (When James asks Berenice whether she might be interested in accompanying him on a work trip, he cites free food as a reason for her to accept the offer. Many critics have been bought and sold for less.) James’s focus on success, to say nothing of his unwavering belief in his own genius as a writer, means that he exudes a manic energy, a confidence that brushes up against psychopathy; he is sophisticated and good-looking enough that it is not immediately obvious that he is desperate. He is also a failed artist, as nearly all noncritics believe nearly all critics are in spite of their protestations. When a wolfish, wealthy art dealer invites James to discuss what will turn out to be an underhanded business proposition at his countryside estate, James brings Berenice to bear witness, as if being seen steeped in that kind of luxury might help him feel like he belonged there. Regularly, he pops pills, a habit acquired after a particularly sticky deadline. (We are told he writes for Flash Art, which is evidently working him too hard.) Some years ago, he trashed what had up until then been an extremely promising career as a “boy wonder” journalist by fiddling his work expenses, burning bridges, and behaving like a diva and a brat. Presented with the opportunity to meet and interview a mysterious and reclusive artist played by Donald Sutherland, he salivates like a predator smelling blood. We know the job will curdle into something dangerous, and so does he, but there is something about James that suggests he enjoys the dirtiest of work.

Giuseppe Capotondi, The Burnt Orange Heresy, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 99 minutes. Joseph Cassidy and James Figueras (Mick Jagger and Claes Bang).

Director Giuseppe Capotondi adapted The Burnt Orange Heresy from a 1971 neo-noir potboiler by Charles Willeford, an American crime novelist famous for his unusual plotting and his offbeat sense of humor. It is curious, then, that the film lacks both spontaneity and levity, the end result as chilly and self-serious as a great deal of actual art criticism. The film’s one great joke is the casting of Mick Jagger as the manipulative collector Joseph Cassidy, his cocksure swagger effortless precisely because it is Jagger’s natural aura—the Stones front man, as iconic as the Rothko that hangs in Cassidy’s study, is himself a work of art. (When Cassidy reminds an uninspired James, irritably, that it’s his “bladdy job describing pictures, innit,” it is obvious that Jagger finds this bit of wide boy posturing as funny as we do.) The idea of a man so desperate to succeed in the art world that he is willing to kill, as James is, is absurd enough that it might have made a decent farce. When he sets fire to the studio of the reclusive artist, having first stolen a canvas, he is partly doing so because the painter’s sudden death will raise the value of the work, a move so evilly cynical in its adherence to the rules of the art market that one almost has to laugh. The movie, sadly, plays it straight. Capotondi may have been better-off encouraging Bang to bring the same energy to James that he brought to an otherwise-middling BBC adaptation of Dracula this year: knowing and camp, absurdly sensual, as fond of chewing scenery as chewing necks. What better template could there be for playing a critic—one who feeds off the creative energies of other people for a living—than a vampire?

Giuseppe Capotondi, The Burnt Orange Heresy, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 99 minutes. James Figueras and Berenice Hollis (Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki).

Watching James claw his way back up the ladder to success, bloodied but well-dressed, it is difficult not to draw parallels with last year’s black-comedy-horror Velvet Buzzsaw, another imperfect exercise in art-world satire whose sensibility is the inverse of The Burnt Orange Heresy’s: broad and goofy, bright and lurid, gory in the manner of a cartoon rather than a noir. The film’s insufferable critic is the brilliantly named Morf Vandewalt, a vain, flamboyant, sexually fluid caricature played with eccentric panache by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose transformation from alterna-heartthrob to character actor has been one of the most thrilling reinventions of the decade—his performance, a wild swing that lands him somewhere between the insane zoologist he played in Okja (2017) and a razor-tongued Hans Ulrich Obrist, almost saves the movie. If James Figueras represents the critic as artist manqué, fallible and mortal, Morf Vanderwalt embodies the critic as a merciless and self-appointed god, a creator and a destroyer of careers and reputations. “Oh, that casket!” Morf spits venomously at a colleague’s funeral, as if he were somehow hoping his disdain might kill the man a second time. “What color is that, smog orange? Did he buy it on sale?”

Bang has starred as an art-world figure once before, in Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017), a film about a paranoid curator whose disinterest in his job leads to a controversial artwork being publicized with a hilariously offensive video. His handsomeness and inbuilt elegance allow him to project a mixture of arrogance and intelligence that sometimes mirrors that of his Danish compatriot Mads Mikkelsen, both actors at their most effective when these qualities are amplified into a darkly comic strain of sociopathy. Had The Burnt Orange Heresy been a funnier, freakier work, James would have been a little closer to Morf: meaner and prissier, outsize enough to register as commentary. As it stands, Scott Smith’s screenplay, which requires Sutherland to deliver the question “Do you know the saddest egg of all?” with an entirely straight face, is as deep and as full of meaning as a paint-by-numbers canvas. “Oh, that movie!” one imagines Morf exclaiming, readying his acid pen. “What kind of a name is that, Burnt Orange Heresy? Did they buy the rights on sale?”

The Burnt Orange Heresy returns to theaters on August 7.