This picture isn’t worth a thousand words.
The most dazzling art movies I’ve seen this past decade include “Renoir,” “Tim’s Vermeer,” and “Never Look Away.” These films rank with the giants, because of their unique abilities to tell story, paint vivd characters, and show me dazzling works of art. These are the kinds of art dramas that should be shown in every art school worldwide.
Unfortunately, I wish I could say the same for “The Burnt Orange Hersey,” which places characters in familiar territories and uses big words to explain the plot. It’s not ingenious, it’s not passionate, and it’s not daring. Matter of fact, it’s barely anything at all.
The story, based upon Charles Willeford’s novel, is thoroughly confusing, and forced me to rely on one-liners to understand it. Even with those, I still couldn’t, other than its main protagonist or actually antagonist-the art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang from “The Square”), who believes in the art of lies and deception. I’ve tried to make sense out of this premise, but all I saw was confusing writing and formula situations.
The story is set in Italy, where he meets an American tramp, a small time girl from Minnesota named Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki), who joins him on a visit to art collector Joseph Cassidy’s (Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones) summer cottage in Lake Como. He arranges for him to meet the reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who hasn’t been interviewed in 50 years, and may hold a valuable painting, which the collector tells him to steal.
The painting is known as “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which Debney explains how critics try to examine the meaning of its existence. And it’s nothing more than a blank canvas. You think it’s revealed to be invisible ink like in “Knives Out,” but it isn’t. It’s just the remains from a fire that obliterated his work.
The performances in the film are more lively than its art or narrative, but once you get to know their characters, you see them nothing more than standard movie characters with cliches and no tricks. Bang uses his charisma to reveal his character as a sadistic monster, Debicki uses her beauty and poise to introduce the audience to her Berenice character, and Sutherland does a solid job portraying the wise old man with a study of art and his secrets towards them. If only Mick Jagger could have his character “Paint It Black,” instead of just being a cameo role. Not even their acting could give their characters color.
“The Burnt Orange Heresy,” directed by Giuseppe Capotondi (“The Double Hour,” “The Berlin Station”), could have been a masterwork about art, theft, and deception; and that’s what I was expecting as I attended a screening of it. Instead, with screenwriter Scott B. Smith (“A Simple Plan,” “The Ruins”) assistance, it takes the most obvious approaches and fails to let me read the characters.
This is an art museum without any art, and now you know I’m not just saying that because of the blank canvas.