An art dealer is hired to steal a painting from one of the most enigmatic painters of his day, and he is consumed by his own greed. Insecurities rise as this operation spins out of control. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a slightly uneven but engaging arthouse thriller, led by two fantastic performances and a misplaced rock star. It’s a neo-noir without the new, hailing from a bygone era of high society sleaze and seduction.
For an English-language release, it’s very European. There’s plenty of languishing with a glass of wine, and slow walks outdoors, a sort of vacational relaxation that’s not expected in a film about a crime. James (Claes Bang) is unlikable in the slimiest way as he seduces Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) from his place as an art historian, and Donald Sutherland’s reclusive artist is easily tricked, or so we think. The artist is cursed with a history of misfortune, and this is where things get messy.
Unlike Netflix release Velvet Buzzsaw, the thriller elements are much more controlled, and it lacks the unintentionally comedic horror of its predecessor. It’s an art heist that is art in itself, with a lot of sitting around to eat, drink, and make small talk. Recently these uber-european mystery stylings have cropped up in Ira Sachs’ Frankie, though that lacked plotting to the point it became arduously slow with little purpose. Here, it is like a jaunt in the Italian countryside between the flouting of the law, and it makes for refreshment.
Of course, the film has some major flaws, and they have been pointed out widely. Mick Jagger is a poor actor, and there is little anyone else can do to hide it, except give their best performances in spite of him. His snobby art collector is a funny casting choice to begin with, but once the novelty wears off, he becomes an unwelcome intrusion in Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang’s (the two never miss a beat throughout the film) dining room. That first hour is slow, without the stakes of the later heist, and this may be off-putting to many viewers.
“I suppose you could see this painting as a suicide note” is a reminder that art is not just property, but a way of salvation for the artist. The consequences for every party are shown for the crime, and it’s more thoughtful than most heist thrillers of its vein. It’s slow intrigue for the first two acts, and any line could feasibly be a lie. It begins as a mystery that’s like crawling up a mudslide, with so many mistruths and dead ends it’s genuinely deceptive. This sly deceptiveness is styled so well within the riches of the art world that the messy third act is forgivable, because everything along the road to get there is so good.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is the kind of artsy heist thriller of a bygone era. It could be called campy, overdramatic, or meandering at times, but these vices hail back to an era of dramatics. It paints Debicki as an Old Hollywood starlet’s seductress, within an elongated crime film that we never seem to get anymore. It’s certainly no fast paced action, but those who like their art thieves slow and dripping with lies should enjoy this one. The film may be imperfect, but it’s enough fun to make up for it.