The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Movie Ending, Explained: Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ is a neo-noir crime thriller with hints of seductive romance. Scott Smith wrote the screenplay for this heist film, which is based on Charles Willeford’s novel. Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang’s captivating performances add to the allure of the narration. A plentiful discourse related to the nature of art makes it a stimulating watch.

However, the script meanders into these ruminations a little too often, making it lose its grip since the attention to thriller aspects gets subdued. Nevertheless, if you are interested in it due to its premise and want to learn in-depth about what happens during its runtime, do keep reading!

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Movie Summary & Plot Synopsis

What is the Burnt Orange Heresy? What is the significance of the title?

James Figueras (Clares Bang) prepares a speech that he is supposed to give to a room full of elderly art enthusiasts. As an art critic, he takes several liberties in how the impressionable audience perceives a painting. He shows a painting with reckless brushstrokes. He first degrades its image in their eyes by criticizing the technique in its brush strokes. Then he narrates a story of how his painter created it in dire situations, which makes them see it as a masterpiece. After playing this game of perception, he then diverts them back to the knowledge that that artist did not make this painting. His story was entirely fictional.

It turns out James painted it himself and gave this speech to prove his point about the importance of a critic in understanding or evaluating art. Besides these old people, there is a young person in the audience who patiently listens to his story and then goes up to ask for a copy of that painting. He refuses to produce or share one and calls it an ‘oratorial gesture.’ Meanwhile, he gets infatuated with her in no time. That marks the beginning of his companionship with this woman – Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki).

We get introduced to these two characters – one, who is a narcissistic art critic who loves his knowledge of art besides the power he has to sway the minds of others – and another, who is an enigma to him and to us. After spending a night together, he asks her to join him for a meeting with an influential art collector and dealer, Joseph Cassidy (Mike Jagger). They enter his lavish Lake Como estate, where habitually, James starts professing his love for his understanding of art. He also examines Joseph as a person through the paintings and architecture, hoping to entice Berenice to fall in love with him.

Joseph shows up and breaks down James’ musings that he considers truth. He then invites the couple over dinner and also takes an interest in Berenice and in learning about her background. James also attentively listens to her speak since he already has doubts about what she presents as the truth about her life. Then eventually, Joseph shares the reason for his invitation. He tells this art critic about Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a reclusive artist known as J.D. Salinger of the art world, who is notorious since his paintings were burned during his exhibitions.

While revered by art lovers and critics alike, Debney hardly ever speaks with anyone about his work, which in itself lends him a part of his reputation (and how his work is interpreted). Joseph offers James a chance to interview this enigmatic artist in exchange for a favor. He wants one of Debney’s paintings in his collection, and he wants James to steal one for him. He traps James in blackmail by noting that he was validating a forgery while raving about a painting in his thesis. His reputation would be tarnished if the word got out and his career ended. So, he reluctantly accepts Joseph’s proposal.

Meanwhile, there is still a back-and-forth between him and Berenice to learn deeper insights about each other’s lives. The clever play of their motives and secrets comes across just as deceiving as the interpretation of art being discussed between these characters. The next day, they get a visit from Debney and discuss James’ skill and dissecting art. While he praises James in one instance, he criticizes it in another. Later, he sends James to take a dive in the pool and then speaks with Berenice alone. He tells her to be alert about James’ deceptive motives.

Unlike James, who keeps his deal with Joseph hidden from her, Debney appears to be a man she can trust. She goes out for a leisurely walk with him while James chooses to sweat himself riding on his bike, trying to find a Debney painting. She opens up about a half-baked story that James told her about Nora Ingen. Debney shares the lies often shared about this tale, with an attempt to seek meaning when there was none. After his truthful disclosure, she trusts him even more to confront her truth. She is a teacher who got caught in an indiscretion with a colleague. She is now on leave to get her cyst removed.

To make peace with her new life, Berenice chose to fake her identity, which Debney considers would be detrimental to her well-being. While James is frustrated with Debney’s refusal to cooperate with him, Berenice is getting exceptionally closer to him. During their meeting, James makes him show his work despite his disinterest in sharing. While that initially makes Debney furious, he eventually starts laughing when he encounters James’ salesmanship. Somehow, that makes Debney show his work and give James approval to write about it.

Debney takes the couple to his cabin and presents a bunch of blank canvasses. While it infuriates James, Debney keeps noting seeing the blue in it. He mentions burning the villa with his paintings, which makes James call him a thief, who robbed his fans of a chance to experience it. James goes in shock to find out what Debney did with his work. He still tries to figure out how he should proceed with Joseph Cassidy’s request. As a result, after Debney’s departure, he goes on to his cabin and packs one of the canvasses that say The Burnt Orange Heresy on its back. He also procures a letter from this workshop and then goes on to burn the entire studio while leaving with nothing but one canvas hurriedly, with Berenice.

The Burnt Orange Heresy Movie Ending Explained

On their drive back, James keeps thinking of ways to describe this piece that he has procured. While she goes on to rest upon their return, he goes to write, stating that he has to be devoted to his muse (he needs to work when the inspiration strikes). Once he is certain that he is alone, he brings the canvass from the trunk of his car and works on it himself backward. From the word he chose to explain it with, he starts to work on the piece himself. Joseph calls him while he is working and learns that he owns the only Debney painting to ever exist in the world.

Despite having a blank canvas in front of him, James describes in vivid detail what the painting is like – connecting it with what was written on its back. He then paints it with bright, luminous, warm tones and signs it off with Debney’s sign at the bottom (copying the sign from the letter he stole from Debney’s studio). Berenice stumbles upon it and notices the fresh paint applied on the canvas. She confronts James about it, who starts openly showcasing his sociopathic tendencies and starts attacking her. In the heat of the moment, he even drowns her in his bathtub.

Soon after, James realizes that he imagined her death while she flees, terrified of who he has become. Still, with his intimidating skill of manipulation, he makes her return to his apartment. She confronts whether Cassidy made him steal a Debney. He tells her that he got nothing but an opportunity to write about it. She still tries to make him see that his fake painting isn’t actually Debney and offers her help to learn how to notice its beauty. But James is too deep in his narcissism that he refuses to seek advice from her.

Berenice starts making him question his worth and whether he actually has an understanding of how to see art. Her consistent persuasion for him to re-evaluate his skills makes him lash out and punch her in her face. He packs her dead body, drowns it down a lake, and rests on the shore for a moment. However, the instant he notices a ship passing by, he runs away so that he won’t get caught in this murder.

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Movie Ending Explained

What do Joseph and James talk about during the exhibition?

Sometime later, the news about Debney’s death starts making rounds on the broadcast. Several art critics, enthusiasts, and collectors start noting the value of his most popular act, which many consider dictates the value of his art. James comes across as the only person who has known, seen, and analyzed Debney’s work and shared high praise for it. During an exhibition in honor of this artist, Joseph shows up and questions James about Berenice, who he hasn’t seen since their last meeting.

Does James get arrested for murder?

Unlike others, Joseph seems to see through James’ ploys and suspects his involvement in Berenice’s disappearance. Despite his perusal for James to share the truth, James maintains his innocence in the matter. To make him feel betrayed, Joseph starts sharing the details he knows about Berenice’s life and her communication with Debney after their meeting at the lake. Her mother said she received a drawing of her, postmarked to Italy. He even gives James an envelope from Debney that he saved before her tragic drowning death.

What does the envelope from Debney contain?

James receives praise for his writing about Debney’s work from a woman, where she happens to mention the fingerprint present on the painting. James realizes that he might get caught in forgery because of it. He even questions Joseph whether he knows about it. In the frenzy of the moment, he opens up the envelope and finds dead flies inside. He recalls that as something Berenice called him before he drowned her. Meanwhile, in her native town, a painting done in blue by Debney is seen attached. It is her portrait with waves crashing in the background.

The ending points to Debney’s knowledge of Berenice’s terrible fate and James’ involvement in her murder. Meanwhile, with both of them dead, James is free from getting caught in the act despite living with a taint on his conscience.

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Movie Themes Analysed

Value of Art: Who decides it?

Throughout the duration, we encounter several conversations related to the value of art. From the perspectives of artists, art critics, art collectors, and enthusiasts, we witness a discourse on how they are perceived. At times, we see the narcissistic critic in James make up meanings on the fly. His perceptions are considered sacrosanct, which boosts his ego furthermore. He values his own word so much that he even goes up to the lengths of murdering a person who makes him reevaluate himself.

Besides, he also calls out Debney for robbing his fans of a chance to witness his art. It brings up the subject of who owns the art & who determines its value – the one who creates it or the one who derives joy (or any emotion/meaning) from it. If you look at the heaps of manipulation that James (and similar real-life critics) put in his work, you may question whether that interpretation is truly one that we should abide by.

In a clever (although bogged down) play of deceptions, the film puts forth how Oscar Wilde’s quote is stretched beyond a point where that in itself becomes a device for elitist snobbery. When we say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, it does not appropriate such practices. Rather, it denotes the artistic value of art being dependent on how much an artist manages to boil down from his intentions. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a meandering attempt at expressing that.

Also, Read: Bloody Oranges [2022] Review – An acidic, heavy-handed showdown from Jean-Christophe Meurisse

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Movie Trailer

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Links: IMDb Wikipedia
The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland

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