Watching “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” you may find yourself wishing one of two things: that Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki had been around to make elegant little mystery capers with Alfred Hitchcock in his prime, or that Hitch were around today to direct this one, a marble-cool art-fraud thriller that begins lithely and sexily before, somewhat mystifyingly, it takes a terminal turn for the dour. The first film in ten years from Italian genre stylist Giuseppe Capotondi, who competed on the Lido in 2009 with his sharp, twisty neo-noir “The Double Hour,” this adaptation of Charles B. Willeford’s 1971 novel — about an art critic desperate to uncover a reclusive painter’s secret works at any cost — is considerably more intriguing in setup than in anti-climactic follow-through, which rather squanders the film’s best asset: the smart, hot, mischievous chemistry between Bang and Debicki, two actors who could sell you just about any Old Master knockoff.
If it’s never less than watchable, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” nonetheless works best as a kind of screen test for a star pairing in search of something friskier: Any enterprising casting directors with a script like “Duplicity,” or an updated “To Catch a Thief,” on their books should be first in line to see it. Distributors, meanwhile, will be drawn by the film’s name appeal and glamorous trappings — as if the leads weren’t soothing enough to the eye, Capotondi throws in some verdant Lake Como scenery for good measure — though it feels like once its festival run is complete, this year’s Venice closer will be seen mostly in ancillary platforms.
Enterprising marketing folk, meanwhile, may draw some kind of wavy connective line between Capotondi’s film and Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner “The Square”: The films are hardly alike, but make similar use of Bang’s lightly ruffled elegance as a performer, both casting the Danish star as a debonair art-scene aesthete increasingly in over his head. (Hey, as typecasting niches go, it’s a classy one to have.) With a Cary-Grant-on-vacation wardrobe and a silky, unplaceable English accent, his character James Figueras exudes an air of slightly chipped polish from the first frame, which sees him delivering a well-rehearsed, glibly clever lecture on the power of the critic to a gormless group of American vacationers in Italy.
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Using false historical context to talk his audience into admiring an unremarkable painting, he then pulls the rug out from under them: “I singlehandedly made you believe this was a masterpiece!” he crows, to awed applause. Less impressed in the back row is wry, enigmatic drifter Berenice (Debicki), who playfully challenges Figueras over his lecture afterwards, and falls into bed with him not long after — though whether she’s merely a beguiling chance acquaintance or a femme fatale with more of an agenda is the first of the film’s various enfolded question marks.
In any case, the spark between them is sufficiently electric that we don’t question why Figueras immediately invites her as his companion on a trip to the swanky Lake Como estate of renowned art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, overplaying to jarring effect), who has a potentially career-enhancing proposal for the jaded critic: an interview with cult artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who has been out of the public eye for half a century. The catch: he has to acquire one of Debney’s unexhibited, fiercely guarded new paintings. Needless to say, as Figueras’ opening lecture helpfully foreshadows for us, nothing that ensues is precisely as it seems — least of all Debney himself, played with a worn, wily twinkle by Sutherland, who blithely disagrees with the critic’s assertion that he has “a duty to posterity.”
Relocating Willeford’s novel from Miami to Italy, the script by Scott B. Smith (“A Simple Plan”) blends simplified art theory with more general quippery, giving Bang and Debicki a surfeit of flirtatious banter to volley early on, before the tone takes a darker, nastier turn. Halfway through, however, the air goes out of the shaggy-dog plotting: a climactic pileup of unfortunate events is both rushed and unsurprising, leaving the actors with little room to dart and play. Capotondi’s direction, so ahead of his wild, joyriding narrative in “The Double Hour,” feels a tad televisual here: Save for the chilly, brittle mood set by Craig Armstrong’s piano-based score, the filmmaking feels subservient to the script’s shifting demands.
Indeed, at 98 minutes, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is the rare film that could stand to be a little more indulgent, teasing out its bluffing narrative with more of a wink, further drinking in the louche allure of its milieu — David Ungaro’s lensing is strong on shadow, but could use a dash of lurid oil-paint gloss — and letting its two delicious stars enjoy each other’s company a bit longer before the fix is in. Nice as it is of Capotondi’s film to acknowledge the art of the critic so generously, there’s no making anyone believe this is a masterpiece: The pleasures it has to offer, though, merit a bigger, more gilded frame.