Forget that cryptic title and the art-world trappings and the veneer of sophistication affected by some of the main characters in the “The Burnt Orange Heresy.”
This is no piece of pretentious fluff. It’s a grim and nasty but wickedly entertaining bit of business, seasoned with sharp little plot turns before an admittedly ludicrous but dramatically satisfying twist-on-top-of-a-twist ending.
Hey. We’ve got Mick Jagger in his first major film role in 20 years, playing a weird little bully of a wealthy art collector. We also have the spectacular Elizabeth Debicki (“Widows,” “The Night Manager”) as a Hitchockian blonde who has fled her life as a Midwestern schoolteacher and effortlessly segued to an exciting and dangerous life as a Euro-traveling woman of mystery.
And … away we go!
Not that Jagger’s Joseph Cassidy and Debicki’s Berenice Hollis even know each other at the beginning of our story (at least as far as we know). Their common bond is one James Figueras (Claes Bang), a learned but deeply cynical art critic with a self-destructive bent who has resorted to scraping out a living giving performance-art style lectures to tourists in Milan, and taking on any side hustles that happen his way.
Berenice attends one of those lectures and lingers afterward to call out James on his bull---- sandwich of a presentation. Hours later, they’re engaged in snappy, cinematic, post-coital banter about whether Berenice is about to head out that door and they’ll never see each other again, or they’re going to wind up married.
James receives a mysterious invite to the Lake Como estate of Jagger’s Cassidy, a filthy rich art collector. He invites Berenice to accompany him on the road trip, and of course she says yes, because after all, James and Berenice look like a couple of movie stars who are made for an exciting and perhaps dangerous weekend holiday at a fabulous property in Lake Como.
The 76-year-old Jagger puts that famous Mt. Rockmore face and devilish persona to great effect as the charismatic and eccentric and unnerving Cassidy, a people puppeteer who clearly delights in putting others on the defensive and catching them off balance with his piercing questions and odd asides.
Like Sydney Greenstreet offering Humphrey Bogart the opportunity of a lifetime in “The Maltese Falcon,” Cassidy has quite the intriguing proposition for James.
Turns out the legendarily reclusive, J.D. Salinger-esque artist Jerome Debney is holed up in a guest cottage on Cassidy’s estate, many decades after a fire consumed Debney’s life work to that point and Debney vanished from the world stage. Debney remains an elusive, secretive figure — declining Cassidy’s daily invitations to lunch at the main house, locking up the guest cabin whenever he ventures outside. Cassidy is convinced the secretive Debney is painting again or perhaps never stopped painting and simply stopped sharing his work with the world.
Cassidy will provide James with the opportunity to meet the great artist and score an interview, which would be the cultural scoop of the last half-century and resurrect James’ once-promising career. All James has to do in return is figure out a way to steal a Debney original for Cassidy. (And given Cassidy threatens to go public with information that would destroy James’ career once and for all, it’s an offer James really can’t refuse.)
Donald Sutherland, who has a mere 194 movie and TV acting credits on IMDB, is perfectly cast as Debney, who comports himself like an old hippie, Zen charmer but has the edginess of someone whose circuits are sometimes misfiring. Is he crazy — or crazy like a fox?
Debney treats James in the manner of a cat toying with a mouse. He’s aware of James’ bona fide credentials and once-promising potential to become a world-class critic, but he quickly sizes him up as an oily opportunist, not to be trusted.
Ah, but Debney recognizes a kindred troubled spirit in Berenice, feels genuine paternal affection for her and quickly comes to trust her. If and when Debney lets down his guard and reveals if there is indeed a treasure trove of finished canvasses on the other side of a locked door in the guest house, it seems his primary motivation would be to share his art with Berenice, as opposed to granting access to James.
These developments only serve to heighten James’ pill-popping fueled paranoia. Was it really pure happenstance that brought Berenice into his life at such a pivotal moment? Is she in cahoots with Debney, or Cassidy, or both of them?
Kudos to director Giuseppe Capotondi and screenwriter Scott Smith for pulling off the tricky feat of adapting Charles Willeford’s 1971 novel to the big screen. Props as well to Claes Bang, whose multi-layered portrayal of the craven James reminded me of William Hurt’s work as a similarly overconfident slickster in “Body Heat.”
After some implausible and unnecessarily nasty speed bumps, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” finds its way again. The last 10 minutes or so are picture perfect, so to speak.