James Figueras (Claes Bang) stands at the front of a lecture hall. Projected onto a screen behind him is a dusky orange abstract painting. Before he explains its provenance to the audience, he tells them it’s uninspiring. Then, in an about-face, his voice filling with emotion, he explains that the painter survived the Holocaust but his sister did not. Figueras directs everyone’s attention to a single gray brushstroke. He tells the enraptured listeners that it symbolizes the dead sister’s soul. Given this information, he asks, doesn’t that change their initial, indifferent response (the response, incidentally, that he instructed them to have)? It turns out to be rather inspiring after all. “I have shaped your experience of the painting,” he says. “That’s the power of the critic.”
This early scene in The Burnt Orange Heresy suggests that the director, Giuseppe Capotondi, is about to seduce our intellects with Claes Bang’s amoral charms. But that intellectual seduction is short-lived. Capotondi gets our attention right away by relying on the impression that Bang made on audiences who saw him in Ruben Östlund’s 2017 film The Square. In that art adjacent movie, Bang played Christian, a troubled museum curator. Figueras, on the other hand, is a more dissolute and rootless version of that character. Burnt Orange’s initial premise turns out to be a feint, just like Figueras’s lecture.
He invented the tale of an artistic brother who lost his beloved sister. In fact, Figueras himself painted the picture. He did so in order to demonstrate his power to inflate and then deflate meaning with a group of people who’ve paid money to hear him speak. It’s the only scene in the movie that engages Bang’s imagination as an actor. After he leaves the lecture hall, his eyes glaze over, his energy flags and his body movements slacken.
A film critic must have panned one of Capotondi’s earlier movies because Burnt Orange is conceived as the portrait of a critic as an unscrupulous liar. But in the director’s attempt to avenge the pure soul of the artist (or filmmaker), the protagonist here is vague and not fleshed out. The abstract orange painting that Figueras displays is a self-portrait of his own made-up nonsense. He drifts from place to place spreading his gospel of lies to geriatric American tourists who can’t see through his elegant facade.
After his lecture, a lanky American blond named Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) approaches him. Like a character out of a Henry James novel, she can’t see through him either. Berenice is an innocent abroad who’s about to be corrupted by a vampiric European (Bang is the latest actor to play Dracula on a new Netflix series about the Transylvanian Count). Debicki, who was funny and spontaneous in Widows (2018), struggles here with the artificial dialogue. When she and Figueras are lying in their post-coital bed together, they talk the way that real people never do. They “understand” each other without having to reveal any actual facts. When she looks at Figueras, Debicki does communicate Berenice’s undoing with her eyes. She mistakenly believes that she’s an exception to his profound sense of apathy.
When Mick Jagger (barely in character as a happy-go-lucky hedonist) summons Figueras to his fabulous estate on nearby Lake Como, the director adjusts his palette. Film noir shadows creep across the frame to snuff out the sunlight. Jagger wants the art critic to interview a famous painter. Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) has installed himself in a small house on the estate to paint in solitude. Out of boredom, perhaps, Sutherland breaks out the Southern drawl of a mad eccentric for the role. His performance arrives on screen after having spent a considerable amount of time in some other, higher energy melodrama (Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte comes to mind).
Debney is considered one of the world’s most accomplished artists — but we have to take Figueras’s word for it because we never see any of his work. Most (or all) of it burned in a fire decades before. That he’s painting again, and willing to talk about it, would reestablish the fallen Figueras as a leading art critic. But there are, of course, obstacles that stand between him and the interview. Capotondi reminds us, with a heavy hand, that this art critic is a sinner. Figueras tells Berenice that when a fly appeared in a medieval portrait it symbolized the figure’s capacity for sin. Shortly thereafter while he’s lying in bed, a fly glides up inside of his nose. Figueras tries to expel it but ends up shrugging. He swallows it whole. He accepts his fate as a villainous sinner and proceeds to do a great deal of harm to everyone he knows.
The Burnt Orange Heresy opens Friday, March 13 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.