Arthouse Noir

Last night’s viewing was a fascinating and unusual 2019 movie called The Burnt Orange Heresy. Based on a 1971 book of the same name by American noir author Charles Willeford, it features Claes Bang (who played Dracula in the recent BBC vampire series) as successful but dodgy art critic James Figueras, Elizabeth Debicki as a down-on-her-luck young American woman partying her way round Italy, Mick Jagger (yes, really!) as supremely wealthy art collector Joseph Cassidy, and Donald Sutherland as reclusive artist Jerome Debney.

The plot centres around a deal made between Cassidy and Figueras: Cassidy will arrange for Figueras to interview Debney (the first time anyone has been able to do that for over 50 years) if Figueras obtains one of Debney’s paintings for him. Since Debney lives in a cottage on Cassidy’s Italian estate this sounds straightforward, but needless to say it isn’t, and events spiral into chaos, stoked by Figueras’s drug habit and growing paranoia.

I was interested to see that Willeford’s book dates from the early seventies, because the movie, although set in modern-day Italy, has a really old-fashioned feel that reminded me strongly of the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair. The “exotic” setting (it was filmed around Lake Como); the wealthy characters; the woman who’s been hounded out of her small town background because she (gasp) had an affair with a married man; even the slightly disconnected, artsy dialogue – all could have been lifted straight from a 1960s film. That’s not a bad thing, mind you – it certainly made this movie stand out from the welter of current, and all-too-standard, heist and hustle films.

The pace is slow, and the interactions between the characters are subtle and filled with sub-text. Tension builds almost imperceptibly in the lazy, heat-filled hours and days at Cassidy’s stunning villa. At first it all seems a little too arthouse, but gradually Figueras is dragged into the murky depths of his own making, one poor choice leading to another in an unstoppable downward spiral. The conclusion is shocking, but also oddly satisfying; the deliberate ambiguity suits the tone of the film and the final denouement was reminiscent of the “My memoirs!” line at the end of Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Reviews of The Burnt Orange Heresy are mixed and there were one or two bits that felt out-of-place, such as a formulaic horror-movie-style murder scene, whilst some of Figueras’s actions are so illogical you do wonder how he’s managed to hold down such a high-profile job. The performances are excellent, though (especially Sutherland, who as you might expect steals every scene he appears in and even a few he doesn’t), and in the end this is a really classy film and one I enjoyed immensely. It makes a nice change to have something other than mad car chases and spraying bullets, and the old-fashioned feel never detracts from the surprisingly dark noir storyline.

One bit of trivia: the official blurb for the film says that Figueras is hired to steal one of Debney’s paintings, but that’s a vast over-simplification of a much more complicated arrangement. In fact, Figueras is reluctant to get involved, and only agrees when it becomes apparent that Cassidy has unearthed information about his background that could damage his career. There’s a nice feel of ‘hoist with his own petard’ at the end, but as with all good noir, nobody really gets out of this unscathed. No wonder I liked it so much!