Paintings and movies can both be art or trash, and, in a completely separate binary, they can both be worth millions or pennies. Both forms of expression struggle with the balance of culture and commerce. But in one very important way they are opposite, an element that is literally material. The value in movies is in the experience of watching them, whether on film or in a digital print. The audience is unaware of the particulars of the mechanism of delivery; indeed, one of the great pleasures of film is that it is immersive, designed to be seen on an enormous screen in a dark room so that the line between the art and the audience is nearly dissolved. But for a painting or drawing, the value, the monetary value anyway, is in the unique distinction of the object. Try asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art whether they would swap a Picasso for an exact digital replica of the original. For this reason, the premium attached to the physical object is more important, at least when it comes to price, than the aesthetic merits of the image. A movie is made by dozens, maybe hundreds of people, many of whom never see each other. A painting (except for the high-end conceptual variations) is made by one person whose individual touch contributes immeasurably to its authenticity and value.
Perhaps this is why some movies are so fascinated with gallery art like paintings. Danish actor Claes Bang is appearing in his second film in three years about the conundrums and hypocrisy of the art world (third if you count “The Last Vermeer”). In the trippy “The Square” he played a museum director. In “The Burnt Orange Heresy” he is James Figueras, an art critic working in Italy who might have preferred to be an artist himself, or a curator. And in his first scene, we see he is also a liar. Speaking to a group of American tourists, James describes the story behind the painting depicted on a slide showing on a screen in the front of the room. It was the last painting from a Holocaust survivor, and as he tells them the story of the artist and his sister, we and the audience he is speaking to look at the image of the painting with increased interest and respect. He asks who wants a print and hands go up. Then he tells them it is a lie. He did the painting himself. Lesson: beware of critics, especially when their comments determine the authenticity or value of a work of art.
One American tourist at James’ talk is Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki). She and James have sex and he impulsively invites her to come along on a visit to the opulent home of a wealthy art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, brimming with wily charm). Cassidy has an irresistible offer for James, a chance at the biggest art story in years, which could bring him fame, fortune, and the credibility he had been seeking since he lost his job at a museum over a little bit of embezzlement. The world’s most famous art genius recluse, a sort of J.D, Salinger of oil painting, lives in a small house on Cassidy’s property. He has not given an interview or allowed anyone to see his work for decades. If James interviews him, it will make his career. But Cassidy wants something in return — a painting. And if James should say no, well Cassidy is not above some almost-genteel blackmail.
The artist is Dabney (Donald Sutherland, deliciously courtly and eloquent, if opaque). It becomes a cat and mouse game with many players, and some surprises about who is the cat and who is the mouse, right up to the final shot.
The various mysteries, especially Berenice’s under-written backstory, are not always satisfying, though Debicki, who was superb in “Widows” and “The Tale,” is always entrancing. The settings, from the fabulous estate to the museum gala and the overall setting of the glamorous world of art museums and collectors, the provocative questions it raises about the uncomfortable relationships of art, commerce, and celebrity, and sharp, witty performances from Sutherland and Jagger make it enticingly watchable.
Parents should know that this film has explicit sexual references and a situation with nudity, very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, drugs, criminal fraud, peril and violence including murder.
Family discussion: How did James’ story change your ideas about the painting in the first scene?
If you like this, try: “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw”
Originally published at https://moviemom.com.