The Unethical Art Critic is the Amoral Heart of 'Burnt Orange Heresy'

Mick Jagger as Joseph Cassidy and Cales Bang as James Figueras in 'The Burnt Orange Heresy.' (Photo by Jose Haro; courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

There’s a familiar trope in Hollywood depictions of the art world, similar in spirit to the ever popular Unethical Female Journalist (she sleeps with sources). In movies, the Unethical Art Critic/Curator (the two positions are interchangeable and often occupied simultaneously) is motivated solely by greed and power, and achieves status through lies, underhanded dealings and sometimes murder. Does he or she love art or respect artists? Seemingly no, or only so far as to acknowledge them as the means by which they make their ascents.

At the risk of being typecast, the Danish actor Claes Bang has now gifted audiences with two delightfully amoral depictions of an Unethical Art Critic/Curator, first as a museum director in 2017’s The Square and now as James Figueras, a morally compromised critic in The Burnt Orange Heresy, directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and based on a 1971 noir novel by Charles Willeford.

Capotondi transposes Willeford’s story of a professional art critic “as contemporary as the glaring Florida sun” from Palm Beach to Milan, and his characters exist in a modern, jetsetting milieu: Mick Jagger plays swaggering art dealer Joseph Cassidy, Donald Sutherland is the reclusive artist Jerome Debney and Elizabeth Debicki is a visitor from the States as Figueras’ romantic interest Berenice Hollis.

Elizabeth Debicki as Berenice Hollis has a pure-heart-to-pure-heart with Donald Sutherland as Jerome Debney. (Photo by Jose Haro; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Most of the action takes place at Cassidy’s “summer cottage” on Lake Cuomo, an expansive palazzo where Debney has holed up after a studio fire claimed his life’s work. From the outset, there are schemes afoot. Cassidy wants a Debney painting. Figueras wants a career. Hollis is too tall and svelte to be an ordinary American human. Was that fire really an accident?

Figueras’ Unethical Art Critic is unsympathetic from the start, when we see him rehearsing a lecture he delivers to American tourists about the “power of the critic”—also the title of his book, copies for sale on the back table. He tells a story about an abstract expressionist painting, the image projected behind him, in an effort to convince the tourists unmoved by its nonrepresentational brushstrokes of its inherent, art historical value.

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The keyword here is “story.” With a now-swayed audience, he reveals the entire narrative is a fabrication, claiming to have painted the image himself, on the fly, without a thought or care in the world. “And that’s why you should be careful with someone like me,” he concludes to applause. (The fact that his story involves twin siblings, the Holocaust and a suicide note renders the manipulation extra icky.) Hollis, witness to the performance, nonetheless goes home with him, making the first of many inexplicably bad decisions when it comes to this man.

James Figueras and Berenice Hollis enjoy a stroll along Lake Cuomo. I yell, 'Run away!' (Photo by Jose Haro; courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

The Burnt Orange Heresy is not a knowing satire of the contemporary art scene in the vein of The Square, nor is it an art heist thriller in the vein of The Thomas Crown Affair, though it does contain an art heist (and a forgery!). It is a noir: cynical, fatalistic and populated by morally bankrupt characters. The pure of heart don’t stand a chance.

As much as I may take personal umbrage with the trope of the Unethical Art Critic, The Burnt Orange Heresy does contain a) some satisfying twists; b) fun ideas for conceptual art; and c) Donald Sutherland stealing every one of his scenes. What’s perplexing and ultimately distracting is Hollis’ helplessness, and her attraction to a man any modern woman would instantly recognize as Bad News (and not in a fun way). I caught myself yelling at her throughout.

Joseph Cassidy hands Berenice Hollis an aperitivo! (Photo by Jose Haro; courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Is Hollis a Patricia Highsmith character who somehow fell through space and time into the world of international art intrigue? Perhaps this is a symptom of the original source material, the era of its writing, or of the noir genre itself. (I’m trying to give screenwriter Scott Smith the benefit of the doubt here, but really.)

This film has a serious title that makes it seem a bit more substantial than it actually is. It turns out to be borrowed from one of Debney’s paintings. When Hollis asks the artist what the words mean, he says it’s “for the critics, those ravenous dogs, they can wear themselves chewing out on it, searching for meaning where there is none.” Aha! Then we remember burnt orange is also the color of an aperitivo—a light, thirst-quenching cocktail meant to whet your appetite for the real meal ahead. As Hollis would say with her Midwest folksy charm, “If the shoe fits.”