FILM REVIEW – THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY
. With Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith. Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. Rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use and violence. 99 minutes.
Every 80 seconds someone in America dies from Coronavirus. As a nation we’re creeping up on five million cases with more than 160,000 dead, the latest estimates suggesting we’ll hit 300,000 fatalities before December (that’s a hundred 9/11s). To the shock and horror of the rest of the world, our stumblebum country’s half-hearted containment efforts have been cataclysmic failures and our testing and tracing programs dysfunctional disasters. No matter how often elected officials like to stand in front of television cameras and congratulate themselves on what a great job they’re doing, the numbers are only going up. Scientists and health care professionals agree that things are going to get much worse before they get any better, so I guess now’s a great time to go back to the movies?
Director Giuseppe Capotondi’s THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY was just beginning its theatrical rollout back in March when screens went dark due to COVID-19. It’s a corker of a picture, the kind of sexy, sophisticated thriller people are talking about when they say they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Starring Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki––two exceptionally tall and attractive actors whose names I’m always convinced I am misspelling––the film is based on a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford. The action has been transplanted from Florida to Italy’s Lake Como, where Bang’s ethically dubious academic and his naive new gal-pal from Duluth fall under the thumb of a shady art dealer, portrayed with lip-smacking relish by Mick Jagger as a man of wealth and taste.
This is Jagger’s first real film role since he played a fading gigolo in 2001’s otherwise unmemorable “The Man From Elysian Fields,” and once again, one wishes his pesky day job didn’t have to deprive us of such delicious performances. He’s all sinewy insinuations here, ensnaring our morally malleable leading man in a scheme to wrest one final masterpiece from a reclusive, retired painter played by Donald Sutherland. With a honeyed drawl and mischief in his eyes, Sutherland does that old trick of his where he strolls into a movie for twenty minutes and saunters away with it tucked inside his breast pocket. A nifty little noir that left a big, silly grin on my face, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is the kind of purely pleasurable picture that in different times I’d describe as to die for. Except I wouldn’t mean it literally.
Other aborted March releases such as “First Cow,” “The Way Back,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” found their way to premium VOD services, while enterprising indie distributors like Kino Lorber and Oscilloscope Labs have teamed up with arthouse theaters to offer virtual screenings, splitting the revenues to help keep your local cinemas going while you watch their latest films from the safety of your sofa. But not so for Sony Pictures Classics, whose co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson it’s theaters or nothing. This is why “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is being re-released exclusively to cinemas during a global pandemic. In other words, if you want to see this movie you’d better be cool with killing your grandma for the privilege.
All available science says that sitting in an enclosed, poorly ventilated space for extended periods of time with other unmasked people is one of the most dangerous things you can do right now, short of licking doorknobs or playing Major League Baseball. For most of my adult life I’ve been going to the movies three or four times a week, and I haven’t been since March. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less at this particular moment, except maybe go to a bar (which used to be my second-favorite thing in the world to do, alas).
Cinema chains like AMC talk a good game about safety measures, but it’s difficult to imagine their compliance with complex protocols when most locations can’t even manage to show a movie with the correct lens on the projector. The amount of garbage (and vermin traps) routinely found on multiplex floors should already tell you everything you need to know about their commitment to cleanliness, and I’m sure these folks will do a fine job enforcing social distancing. After all, look how great they are at keeping people from using their phones during a film.
(I used to work for a theater chain owned by a maverick billionaire who likes to throw his money around on a television show. Our place had a leaky roof that we were told was cost-prohibitive to repair. When soaked ceiling tiles began to break apart and came crashing down upon the seats below, we were instructed merely to rope off the rows in which we thought patrons were most likely to be struck by falling debris, then continue on with business as usual. Your personal safety is not a priority to these people.)
Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was for a while envisioned as the world’s return to movie theaters, the large-format film eschewing home viewing options and bumping back its theatrical release date several times in response to worsening conditions in the country. For months now, Nolan has been a whipping boy in industry columns and on social media for wanting to wait until audiences can see his film safely on a big screen, instead of rushing the $200 million movie out early onto pay-per-view platforms. I find it both astoundingly hypocritical and completely unsurprising that Nolan’s been vilified for trying to protect his audience while SPC’s Bernard and Barker haven’t received the slightest bit of blowback for putting theirs at risk.
I mean, I get it… to an extent. Nolan’s a poncy British fellow who takes himself terribly seriously and wears silly scarves. He made folks on the internet insanely angry a few years ago when he suggested that he’d prefer audiences see his life’s work on a large screen under optimum conditions whenever possible. This innocuous-enough admission was read as “elitist” by the Dorito-dusted keyboard commandos who only watch torrents anyway so they can live-tweet them, and now Nolan is constantly being accused of “trying to kill his fans” because he didn’t somehow hijack Warner Bros. $200 million investment and send “Tenet” straight to Netflix months ago.
Meanwhile, the audience for most films released by Sony Pictures Classics has hair the same shade of blue as the distributor’s logo, putting them at extremely high risk of becoming COVID-19 casualties. Yet the company charges on with this reckless and irresponsible “theaters or nothing” plan––a full month ahead of the latest tentative release date for “Tenet,” mind you––unencumbered by any censure from our esteemed moral watchdogs in all their wisdom.
It depressed me this week to watch how many of my fellow critics have cautiously exempted themselves from this conversation. Colleagues whose actual job description is telling people whether or not they should go see a movie are now clamming up and claiming that it’s not their place to tell people whether or not they should go see this particular picture. Part of it is presumably my profession’s usual, mealy-mouthed obeisance in exchange for access. SPC has some of the most vindictive publicists I’ve ever encountered, with Barker and Bernard boasting rough, hard-won reputations for treating regional film festivals and any writers outside the NY/LA axis like some fetid glob discovered on the underside of their shoes. There’s a reason Sony Pictures Classics been around since 1992 while almost all of their competitors in indie and foreign language film distribution have cratered: these guys mean business.
So I guess there’s some kind of irony here in that “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is about Jagger’s sinister culture vulture blackmailing a compromised critic to create a phony narrative that will make them both millions, even if innocent people have to die for them to pull it off. The film really is a smashing entertainment, but would I be so quick to recall my favorite moments while intubated? Is the warmth of Sutherland’s sly performance really worth coming home and coughing droplets onto my loved ones that will turn their lungs into cement? I see retail outlets are currently listing the DVD and Blu-ray street dates for “The Burnt Orange Heresy” as August 25th. If you want to watch it safely at home, this is a movie very much worth waiting for.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality