Based on a 1971 novel by the late Charles Willeford — a writer of crime fiction best known for his recurring character Detective Hoke Moseley — “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is a stylish neo-noir thriller, set in the art world.
Directed by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Capotondi (“The Double Hour”) from a screenplay by Scott B. Smith that strays far from the source material, this story doesn’t feature Moseley, but it still makes for a mostly smart and sexy crime drama, even if it loses steam by the time the ridiculous ending rolls around.
Claes Bang, who starred in the 2017 art-world satire “The Square,” returns to that milieu as James Figueras, an art critic who’s trying to make a living on the lecture circuit in Milan. James could use a more reliable salary to support his drug habit but, even if he’s not paid much, he does think well of himself, titling his book “The Power of the Critic” and declaring that, “Art wouldn’t exist without criticism.” James even makes up a backstory about a Holocaust survivor to convince a group of elderly tourists that a nondescript abstraction is a masterpiece.
Gotcha: He painted it himself.
Such charming arrogance impresses a young American tourist named Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) and the two begin a steamy affair that’s a throwback to such erotic thrillers as “Body Heat.”
The couple gets invited to a lavish villa owned by an art dealer called Cassidy (Mick Jagger), who’s taken in a famous — and famously reclusive — house guest: painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Cassidy has a proposition for James: Because Debney hasn’t delivered a finished painting in years, would James be willing to break into the artist’s studio and steal one? If James can pull it off, Cassidy will make it worth his while.
Willeford, who died in 1988, was one of the great crime writers. But he was so contrarian that when his publisher asked for a sequel to his 1984 bestseller “Miami Blues” — made into a 1990 film starring Alec Baldwin and Fred Ward — he delivered a manuscript that turned his hero Moseley into such a monster that it was never published.
Adapting “Heresy” — its unusual title comes from one of Debney’s paintings — screenwriter Smith relocates the action of Willeford’s novel from seedy South Florida to picturesque Italy, which softens the hard-boiled cynicism of the original. And yet the movie has a way of sneaking up on you, and its radical deviations from Willeford’s narrative keep the convoluted plot fresh, even if you know the book.
It’s really the cast who help deliver that plot. Bang has a voice that recalls a young James Mason at times: just listen to him entice Berenice to a fancy art party because, as he puts it, “there just might be some cucumber sandwiches.” He’s got a perfect foil in Debicki. Berenice sees through James’s smug intellect, cutting him down to size with a mix of blunt candour and smart-alecky banter.
But the film’s biggest pleasure comes courtesy of a hilariously hammy Jagger, who delivers such gems of art-speak as “Modigliani provenance” with a gleefully upper-class air. It’s like showing up for a gallery talk and finding out that the Rolling Stones are your guide.
Like James, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” asks whether the story behind a work of art is more important than the work itself. And that may or may not be so. But thanks to small doses of sex and violence — and a healthy dollop of Jagger — the movie that frames that question is more entertaining than anything any critic, including this one, might say.
The Burnt Orange Heresy
Written by Scott B. Smith. Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland. Opens Aug. 7 in Toronto. 99 minutes. R
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