The Burnt Orange Heresy is a thriller directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. It stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, and Mick Jagger. Those are the facts, and it is difficult for me to go beyond them. Criticism seems frivolous. Thinking about art seems frivolous. Writing this sentence, right now, seems frivolous. Thanks to an abundance of caution about the coronavirus, I already know that I’m not going to see A Quiet Place 2 next week because John Krasinski cancelled its release. It is almost certain we are in a recession, to say nothing of the global public health emergency. This is not a normal film review.
I was able to write and think about First Cow. That film is set in the past, and its metaphors have modern resonance. It is about the inherent cruelty of capitalism, but because its premise revolves around stealing milk, its idea are just distant enough so they do not sting. The Burnt Orange Heresy, on the other hand, is practically deliberate in its frivolity. Claes Bang plays an art critic, the least essential profession, and his goal is to steal from a reclusive painter (Sutherland) whose entire career is based on fraud. These are urbane, affluent people without anything serious at stake. At this moment, caring about them seems ridiculous.
But what really took me out of Heresy – what made it painful to watch – was its setting. The opening scenes are in Milan, and the majority of the action is on the shores of Lake Como. Those places are the epicenter of Coronavirus in the Western Hemisphere. The film begins with James, the character played by Band, seducing Berenice (played by Debicki). This all unfolds in the present, so it is difficult to shake that James’ lecture – the scene that opens the film – would not happen. This is no time for banter, flirtation, or greed. Through no fault of its own, parts of the film unfold like a sick joke.
Our current moment is weird and unpleasant. We don’t know what will happen, and that is the worst thing. If someone from the future could tell me that I’d be at home a couple weeks and my loved ones would survive, I could take it. Right now, however, I am thinking about my grandmother who was just in the hospital for breathing problems. I am thinking about my wife, my neighbors, my community, and my country. I am thinking about my friend in Seattle who is due in early April with her second kid. I am not thinking about The Burnt Orange Heresy.
And yet. And yet. There is something to the film I cannot shake. It is well-acted, for one thing, and its characters have recognizably human flaws. James is pretentious, but he cares about art in a specific way. His scenes with Berenice have an edge because they both are in on the “joke” of their newfound romance. The mere appearance of Jagger is welcoming: this is his first film role since The Man from Elysian Fields, a criminally underseen romantic comedy, and he clearly loves an opportunity like this. His character knows he is wicked, and Jagger knows this about his character. Yes, this is all terribly unnecessary, but if you look at it the right, it is a reprieve.
The apocalypse is a fantasy. If the end is nigh, then we do not have to worry. It means we don’t have to think about the painful, difficult work it will take to endure this pandemic. Things will suck for a long time, and then (hopefully) they will not. In a roundabout way, this is a case for seeing The Burnt Orange Heresy. You cannot spend every waking moment worrying about all this. You need a break, and perhaps a reminder of what movies can do. They are an escape away from our lives, and who wouldn’t want to exchange knowing glances with Donald Sutherland in a sunny Italian villa, at least in a general sense? All culture is frivolous right now, to some degree or another, so if you’re going to indulge, this is a better escape than watching Contagion for the fourth time.