Venice 2019: Questioning the Truth of Art in 'The Burnt Orange Heresy'
by Alex Billington
September 7, 2019
How much of the art world is bullshit? All of it? None of it? Some of it? At the beginning of the year, we had the funky art world satire Velvet Buzzsaw to make us wonder about the validity of art, and now at the end of the year we have The Burnt Orange Heresy. This film is much more serious, not at all a satire, with only a few drops of levity and much more drama. Along with heaps of philosophical discussion about art and what really matters and whether any of it is real, or if it's all just a bunch of bullshit yet everyone loves it anyway. The film opens with a thought-provoking presentation by the main character about the importance of criticism, which by the end also completely breaks down art criticism as a nonsensical job that can build up or tear down art that is truly separate (in its truth or purity or originality) than what others say about it.
Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi (his second feature after The Double Hour in 2009), it's adapted from Charles Willeford's book of the same name. We're introduced to a cocky art critic named James Figueras, played by Claes Bang (from The Square), who meets a mysterious woman named Berenice Hollis, played by Elizabeth Debicki. The two end up rolling around in bed, then embark on a short trip up to Lake Como in Italy to stay inside the mansion of an eccentric collector, as played by Mick Jagger (of all people - but he does fit the role). The first third and the final third are the weakest part of this film, since the only character that truly gets established with any depth is Figueras, while the rest seem a bit flimsy. I'm sure they have depth, but the film doesn't really establish this in any detailed way. Once at the mansion, they discover a long-lost artist, played by Donald Sutherland, is living nearby and they may have an opportunity to meet and interview him to find out where he has been all these years and perhaps get a glimpse at his latest work.
What I find particularly fascinating about this film is that we can't really trust what anyone says in it. Pretty much every last line of dialogue, from every character, is mysterious. And almost none of it can be believed. Everything everyone says can be interpreted as a lie, or a fabrication, or some kind of deceptive statement. And while all of this dialogue has a point, because of course it does, we have to "read between the lines" and work our way around the words themselves to figure out what's really going on. And figure out what they're really trying to say. Maybe when he talks about art being useless, it really means there's something more to it. Or maybe not…? And I love the intrigue of not knowing whether any of what is being said can really be taken at face value or whether we need to dig into it more to find the truth. Much like art (and art criticism).
There's also a few obvious references throughout the first half to "Zima Blue", the short story by Alastair Reynolds that was turned into a short animated film in Netflix's "Love, Death & Robots" series this year. The framing of this film involving an art critic / journalist being given a rare opportunity to interview an elusive artist at an estate on the water is the same as in "Zima Blue". And then once they meet the artist, he goes on and on about the color blue - including literally referencing a pool in which he first discovered the most pure color of blue, which is also straight from "Zima Blue". But this all ties in with the bigger ideas that this story, and Willeford's original "The Burnt Orange Heresy" book, addresses, about truth and art and whether any of it means anything, or if it's all a bunch of pointless brush strokes we assign meaning to because we have to.
The more I think about it, the more I am in awe of just how much mystery he works into every last scene in this film. It's not just a few scenes, or certain moments with the artist, it's pretty much everything. There's a conversation early on where Figueras admits his opening presentation was all made up, but then he explains some of it wasn't fake some of it is true (but you never know), then later it's brought up again as the artist says there is no truth to it, but then again you start to wonder if some of that truth has been smudged in order to achieve a goal. Or to make a point. A point buried deep within the conversations and ideas here, about how much truth matters or whether the art is all that matters in the end. Whether telling a good story is more important than telling a true story. It really makes you think, and I love that ambiguousness of this.
As much as I enjoyed most of the film, the third act almost ruins everything when it goes off the rails and nothing makes sense anymore. Not that it's confusing, but the characters start acting in ways that just don't make sense. And before you know it, things are moving on without much explanation, and then suddenly it's over. It's an unfortunate turn of events in otherwise beguiling, carefully crafted film about the mysteries of art and the big existential question of what does it all mean and what is true. Capotondi's cinematographer David Ungaro thankfully doesn't over-saturate or luxuriate, instead his shots are mostly quite subtle and straightforward which adds to the mystery of the entire story. It has enough texture to pull you in, but never feels too imaginative or surreal. And that is important in order to ground this story in a sense of realism to pull us through it - so we can feel a part of it, and find out how we fit into the conversation ourselves. What do we believe? Of course, there is no answer, but the film succeeds in making us wonder what really is real.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 8 out of 10
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