This one had lukewarm reviews but I went along anyway because a) I liked the idea of a thriller set in the art world and b) I wanted to see Mick Jagger in a starring role. Last time I saw such a thing was in 1970 when he played Ned Kelly, and I don’t remember much of it because, ahem, it was at the drive-in and I was young.
Claes Bang plays James Figueras, a handsome and charismatic American art critic living in Italy whose last book has sold all it’s ever going to sell and who’s reduced to giving infotaining art lectures to tourists. He’s very good at this, exploiting their eagerness to understand modern art. He’s giving one when we first meet him, spinning a tale around a baffling piece of abstraction which may or may not have been painted by a tragic artist lost to the holocaust, or maybe by Figueras himself. It doesn’t much matter, he seems to be saying. He wants to disillusion his earnest listeners about notions of authenticity and meaning in art, and he’s doing it for fun and profit.
Into this lecture wanders willowy Berenice (Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki), a small-town American girl drifting around Europe. She falls for his good looks and his cool schtick, and they soon hook up.
Figueras tells her he’s off for a weekend at the exquisite, aged-to-perfection Lake Como villa of renowned art collector, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger). He’s not entirely sure why he’s been invited, but on an impulse he asks Berenice along. As tall, lean and attractive as he is, she’ll make a great trophy girlfriend.
Cassidy reveals to Figueras that he’s the patron of the mysterious Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), an artist who happens to be a genuine hero of the otherwise blase Figueras. Debney is a kind of JD Salinger of the art world; his mystique has grown in direct proportion to his reclusiveness. Turns out he’s been living for years as Cassidy’s guest and has a studio on his beautiful estate. Cassidy has a scheme to make money out of Debney’s enigmatic reputation and the supposed rarity of his masterworks, and enlists the cynical Figueras in his nefarious plan.
Things start out sunnily and sumptuously Italian, but the story soon evolves into something a little darker than your conventional art heist plot as we begin to realise just how amoral both Figueras and Cassidy are in pursuit of money and success. Jagger plays Cassidy with a suitably oily charm, convincingly in his element amid the glitz, glamour and air-kissing celebrity worship of the art world.
The Burnt Orange Heresy was based on a book by Charles Willeford, whom Wikipedia tells me is a successful crime writer who also writes poetry and literary criticism. So there you go – a man who funds his serious writing with more commercial yarns. He obviously knows a thing or two about living on one’s wits.
This story IS a good yarn, and the tropes and twists of the heist thriller, along with some sharp commentary on art world pretension, add spice to the emotional drama. Plus the classically beautiful Lombardy landscape alone is almost worth the price of admission.