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The twists and turns of “The Burnt Orange Heresy”

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


Danish actor Claes Bang plays the mysterious art critic James Figueras and Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as the newly acquired girlfriend Berenice Hollis.

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Blu-ray, 2019, R for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use, and violence; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Director commentary by Giuseppe Capotondi

ADAPTED BY Scott B. Smith from a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford, and directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is a thoroughly absorbing, stylish, slow burn of a melodrama.

Set primarily on gorgeous Lake Como in northern Italy, it’s the story of a tall, dark and handsome art critic named James Figueras, played by the Danish actor Claes Bang, lately the star BBC/Netflix’s resurrection (pun intended) of “Dracula.” James is in Milan when we meet him, giving a lecture to a group of tourists, one of whom is a lovely young American, Berenice Hollis (Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki). The two quickly connect and, after a passionate night together, James invites Berenice to the villa of a wealthy English art collector, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger).

While at the sumptuous, art-filled home, we discover that James’ career is foundering, thanks to some embezzlement and forged art sales allegations. Cassidy lets James know he’s aware of the critic’s problems and offers to help him out, both monetarily and professionally. In exchange, James must find a way to acquire an original painting for Cassidy by Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), an aging, reclusive, curmudgeonly artist who lives on Cassidy’s property. Another bonus for James would be the chance to swing a valuable interview with the world-renown Debney. When James and Berenice meet Debney, it seems as though it’s all systems go. Debney is enchanted by Berenice and James gains entry to the artist’s studio. What he discovers there puts a huge monkey wrench into the works, and begins James’ descent into crime and violence, and the film’s evolution into a very satisfying, very dark thriller.

With beautiful cinematography from David Ungaro, convincing performances — including by Jagger, whose reptilian face and manner make him the perfect instigator — stunning scenery, plenty of art, and a story with more than a few deceptions and surprises, what’s not to love?

(1&2) Milan-based Figueras gives an art lecture to a group of tourists including Berenice Hollis. (3) James and Berenice head to the Lake Como villa of an English art collector, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger). (4) The villa is full of art pieces, including their guest bedroom.



The Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics looks very good in 1080p (2.39:1 aspect ratio), even though the source information of a 2K or 4K master is not available. Fine detail is evident throughout, the color palette is dialed toward a neutral cooler side, while the skin tones read as natural. There is plenty of depth and satisfying contrast. The DTS-HD audio is also well done, with sound effects well-balanced and realistic, and dialogue very clear.


The only one that exists aside from the commentary, is a promo-type “behind-the-scenes” featurette, with remarks by actors and producers. The commentary is somewhat sparse, but contains interesting trivia and production information. Capotondi says that the main theme of the film is “truth, or what is perceived as truth.” In one of several “Easter eggs,” or hidden images or messages in the film, Capotondi notes the instances of operatic excerpts. They all sound like voices of women sopranos when, in fact, the excerpts come from Baroque opera, in which the women’s parts are sung by male countertenors.

Capotondi points out the artwork in the film that was made by the production designer, an accomplished painter. But the director also identifies the many authentic paintings and sculptures, loaned to the film by private collectors. Willeford’s original novel, says Capotondi, was set in 1970s Florida. As it was too expensive to shoot the film there, he switched it to Italy in the present day, but wanted to convey a “timeless feeling.” Therefore, he made a point of showing almost no modern technology, except for the brief appearance of a couple of iPhones.

(1) Veteran rocker Mick Jagger as the wealthy art collector, Joseph Cassidy. (2) Cassidy offers the assignment to acquire an original painting by Jerome Debney. (3) One of the sexy scenes between the very tall actors - Bang is nearly 6'5" and Debicki is 6'3". (4) Donald Sutherland as legendary artist Jerome Debney.


The villa in the film was actually empty and derelict, so it had to be completely renovated and decorated by the production designers. Capotondi explains that the building has an exceptionally dark past: it was taken over by the Nazis during World War II, and they were known to have killed people there, and thrown the bodies into Lake Como. The villa’s gardens, however, are currently maintained and rented out for events. Capotondi remarks that the two lead actors, Bang and Debicki, resemble “old-school film stars” out of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller — comparing them to Cary Grant and Kim Novak.

Mick Jagger, says the director, came up with the Chelsea accent he uses in the film, connoting a lower-class background. Jagger’s presence in the film caused some problems when shooting on the villa’s balcony, because paparazzi got wind of his being there, and would arrive in speedboats to take photos.

The director says the shoot lasted only 25 days, so there wasn’t time for many repeat takes, attesting to the professionalism of the actors. Speaking about Sutherland, Capotondi says that the character of Debney “resonated with Donald; both of them lived a long time and had seen everything.” The director also reveals his original idea for ending the film and explains his decision to go with his chosen one.

— Peggy Earle

(1&2) Jerome Debney and Berenice go for a walk, while James tries to get inside Jerome Debney's rental cottage on the Cassidy estate. (3) James and Berenice finally see Debney's latest works.


(1&2) Berenice confronts James with his plans, which leads to an early morning return to Lake Como. (3&4) James and Joseph Cassidy unveil the last work by Jerome Debney at a New York gallery.




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