Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 22, 2020 4:30 pm 
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CLAES BANG AND ELIZABETH DEBICKI IN THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY

Hold that brush!

In 2010 Giuseppe Capotondi made a terrific Italian thriller called The Double Hour/La doppia ora. He doesn't do quite so well with this English language adaptation by Scott B. Smith of an intriguing, if implausible, 1970 book by Charles Willeford, of whom Elmore Leonard once said "Nobody writes a better crime novel." The switch from Italian to English may be one of the problems: the dialogue sometimes feels out of sync with the actors. (For all I know, Willeford may have written better crime novels than this, and Capotondi may make better movies.)

The feel is prickly, but that may be intentional, and that may work for you, if you like prickly. Despite attractive settings in the Italian lake district (wisely moved there from the Everglades by the Italian director), there are many little annoyances the movie titillates us with. There is tinkly diegetic music in many scenes reminiscent of a YouTube video, posh enough only to seem tacky. When regular film-score music comes in to take us from place to place, it's maddeningly conventional.

For that matter, the main characters are insufferable and pretentious. Besides being unlikable, they talk in a self-conscious, stylized manner, which in our era, can't take on the appealing edge and snap of a good Forties film noir and merely seems wooden or distant. Nonetheless, this is provocative material, and these are actors with presence and sometimes chemistry. The sophistication of the first half gives way to thriller stuff in most of the second (with a pleasingly ironic coda). The action part hasn't quite the pacing and suspense needed to really grab you - something Capotondi did achieve most effectively in The Double Hour. There is a great neo noir by John Dahl called Kill Me Again. Here, somebody really does get killed twice. Well, kind of - and you see it coming.

Now here's the pitch. A rich, apparently all-knowing art collector called Joseph Cassidy, (played with slimy suavity by Mick Jagger), wants to engage an art critic, James Figueras (Claes Bang of The Square) to steal a painting by a mysterios painter called Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Figueras is willing, though his ostensible goal is to achieve the rare coup of interviewing and writing about this mystery master, who became famous when all of his paintings were twice destroyed by fire. No one has seen Debney's work or the man himself for decades - except that, surprisingly enough, he lives in a studio on Cassidy's estate, only he hasn't allowed visitors. In the event, complications naturally ensue.

Figueras is a suave but suspect minor scoundrel who seems reduced of late to giving lectures on art to tourists for 200 euros. It seems an embezzlement scandal may have delayed Figueras' rise to his deserved position as, say, a museum director. Or he may be just too busy womanizing, smoking, and popping pep pills. We see him play a clever trick in the opening scene, where he gives one of his lectures. It seems far too clever and confusing to suit a group of American tourists in Milan. When it's over, Figueras hooks up with Berenice Hollis (the very promising Elizabeth Debicki), a loose young lady who sidles up to him afterward.

They promptly become lovers, in a lengthy, talky fuck scene. Next day, Berenice follows James to Cassidy's villa where they are guests waited upon by uniformed and gloved servants. Under Cassidy's questioning, Berenice admits reluctantly to being from an obscure town near Duluth. In fact she exudes a snide sophistication (required by the script) perhaps more worthy of Debicki, who's half Polish, born in Paris, and raised and educated in Melbourne. When James and Berenice are showing off their snideness to each other, it can be a bit unbearable. But again deliciously so, perhaps.

Cassidy wants a painting from the reclusive and now elderly Debney, who lives on the estate of his "summer cottage," a grand mansion on Lake Como filled with large paintings by famous modern artists. Cassidy brings in Figueras because, first, Figueras is larcenous, second, he has written knowingly about Debney. Indeed his lecture to the tourists toyed with the subject and was a heavy hint of later developments. If Debney has twice had all his work destroyed in fires, has anybody ever seen one of his paintings? No matter: all this makes him a kind of legend. Now Figueras wants to meet with Debney and Cassidy wants him to. Gradually, it happens. First Debney has a long flirt with Berenice, and makes Figueras perform an athletic feat. Then, the interview in his studio takes place, with a stunning revelation. Soon there comes an event that stands to benefit both Cassidy and Figueras enormously – but involves the commission of more than one serious crime. Figueras takes full advantage of his access, aided when Debney goes off to meet someone, with results that cause a fracas between the art critic and Berenice that turns ugly.

After a number of dirty deeds have been done, the action jumps forward to find Cassidy and Figueras in an art world scene where they both shine as a result of what has taken place at the villa. A number of real art figures are introduced at the end as the two slimy fellows enjoy their increased visibility and success. There is a fine irony about this along with a strong hint of menace, since Cassidy may know more than is safe for Figueras - but the sense of bad guys getting away with it in an atmosphere of European pretension reminds one of the pleasingly immoral world of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels.

The heart of this story, of course - the famous artist with no paintings – fairly reeks of the high concept and Figueras' coup is implausible. But this is also a critique, one supposes, of the world of art (which these days is as high flown and crazy a place as it's ever been) - and of the critics, who the story points out from the start mold public opinion and determine the fashionablity of particular artists. But this film is lacking as a work about contemporary art, to which it has no real reference, quite unlike Ruben Östlund's The Square, which Bang previously starred in, which was on the edge with current art references. A lot of the focus here is simply on the stylized and labored dialogue, in which these characters show off. If at base this movie is somehow lacking conviction, it’s also aware of its own pretension, or that of its characters. And that after all is deeply germane to the art world.

Fun fact: Sutherland is 6'4" and so is Klaes Bang, and Debicki is 6'2 1/2". We're operating on a very high level here.

The Burnt Orange Heresy, 99 mins., debuted as the closing night film at Venice Sept. 2019, also showing at Toronto and Zurich. Its US theatrical release (Sony) begins Mar. 6, 2020. Metascore so far (from only 4 reviews): 59%.

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