After drolly skewering art curators in The Square, Claes Bang roasts art critics in The Burnt Orange Heresy. The unfortunately-titled film calls out critics for their self-deluded influence and significance. If one thinks Birdman gave critics the middle finger, then The Burnt Orange Heresy makes them walk the plank. This film by Giuseppe Capotondi plays inside baseball for the art crowd, but viewers in the know should crack a smile. Art criticism is a hopelessly vulgar and self-serving profession when the wrong writer wields the pen.
One such writer is Bang’s James Figueras. The film introduces him as the ultimate arrogant blowhard of art criticism. In film review terms, think Pauline Kael meets Armond White with a dash of Jeff Wells. He’s one of those critics who think the sun revolves around him and will craft essayistic witticisms to prove it. However, as James first presents a lecture on the role of the critic, he delivers a compelling argument. Some rehearsal scenes lifted straight from Michael Clayton find themselves cut together with his pitch-perfect lecture. We see James practice self-congratulatory orations while defecating, along with shots of him shovelling shit to the gullible masses. His argument is that any good critic has the power to transform something into a work of art. All one needs is some context, colour, and strokes of brilliant wordplay.
However, anyone who avidly reads criticism knows that the best critics still can’t put ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag. Showgirls remains a terrible film no matter how many books or contrarian essays it inspires. James’s enthusiasm for a critics’ power blinds him to his own limitations, which arise when tasked to create his masterpiece.
An Indecent Proposal
This challenge comes from Joseph Cassidy, a wealthy art curator played with cocksure swagger by Mick Jagger. Cassidy invites James and his high-art groupie Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) to his mansion on Lake Como with a plum offer. He proposes James an exclusive interview with a reclusive artist, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who resides on his estate. Debney, who twice lost the entirety of his art collection in devastating fires, is believed to be painting his third act. For the price of the interview, Cassidy wants a Debney for his collection. He’s a man who covets not the price of a work of art, but rather its value, rarity, and uniqueness.
Criticism often entails quid pro quos—I often liken it to Big Momma Morton’s number “When You’re Good to Mama”—but such a request is not so simple as letting one hand wash the other. So ensues a dangerous seduction in which the critic builds trust with his subject with the intent to violate it. The Burnt Orange Heresy embeds James within his own criticism when Cassidy informs him that Debney enjoyed one of his essays. It’s a piece about an artist named Vint, whom James exposed as having conned his wealthy patrons by painting flies on their portraits. The trompe l’œil branded each of Vint’s subjects a sinner by drawing upon imagery from medieval art.
Lord of the Flies
Flies abound in The Burnt Orange Heresy as James wrestles with his dilemma. There are flies everywhere. Bang plays James as the biggest gnat of all as the thrill of the exclusive scoop feeds his ego. One can only imagine the source of inspiration for this debonair actor’s take on the critic. Bang’s culture vulture oozes with predatory, self-serving chauvinism. Good artists are often at their best when they beguile us with grotesque characters.
The Burnt Orange Heresy finds a worthy counterpart to Bang’s ogre in Debicki’s ingénue. She delivers on the promise of The Great Gatsby and Widows with a performance that feels like a true star turn. Her Berenice evokes the subject of a Renaissance painting. She’s a statuesque figure with a mirthful smile that hides a greater story beneath the surface. The film reveals tidbits of Berenice’s backstory as Debney, rather than James, appreciates her as more than eye candy. While James fails to see the character that lives within her beauty, The Burnt Orange Hersey evolves into a thriller when Berenice recognizes both the value and price of art.
The film, which derives its title from an artwork in Debney’s studio, is a trompe l’œil of its own. It takes shape gradually and finds the seedy underside to the art world amidst the dazzling backdrop of Lake Como. One could liken it to the grotesque monster that floats ashore towards the end of Fellini’s La dolce vita: an acquired taste, but an apt portrait of a vulgar world. Alternatively, one could liken it to Debney’s painting “The Burnt Orange Heresy”: a whole lot of nothing. It all depends on how one frames it.
The Burnt Orange Heresy opens August 7.
(Wear a mask if visiting the theatre!)