Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019)

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Opens Friday 6 March in the US

Don’t be put off by the title; it’s not an exposé of the current occupant of the White House, but an adaptation of the 1971 Charles Willeford novel of the same name. I went to a special screening thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival folks with my pal Peg Aloi AKA The Media Witch. There was a Q&A with producer William Horberg after.

The film stars the very tall pair, Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki, in the primary roles (I never noticed during the BBC Dracula how long Bang’s torso is) with Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland in small pivotal roles. Scott Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan, scripted the film from the novel. He reduced the overwhelming misogyny of the book somewhat (‘Really?’ Peg asked). Horberg mentioned how his pal Neil LaBute was interested in filming the novel at one point. I shudder to think.

Art, grifting, theft and criticism: the book is a lot more deliberate about the last. Smith’s script takes the central themes and turns them into plot decisions. It’s more efficient and dramatic. I’m immersed in stories of art forgery at present for a project (yeah, there’s some Ripley in it, too) so this story has been swirling around in my head. Smith focuses on how the stories we shape in turn shape who we are, but the devil is in the details.

Bang and Debicki are excellent as Figueras (the Puerto Rican identity that’s a linchpin of the novel is dropped) and Hollis. Immediately drawn to each other but infinitely wary, too; he, because he has no authenticity—she, because she has too much. As an art critic on the make, he’s easily exploited by Jagger’s smarmy art dealer Cassidy to get an exclusive: one for each of them. Per Horberg, Jagger asked for rewrites of his part. Possibly just a power move, but the character is much more clever than in the books. It’s not giving away too much to say that he send Figueras to interview reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) and to steal a painting from the man who’s only ever had one work displayed.

Berenice exists in the novel as an excuse for Figueras to ramble about his opinions on art and criticism at length (something I have an interest in though most noir fans may skip over the pages on Becket, Dada and Surrealism quickly) and as a plot point. It’s to Smith’s credit that she’s more than that in the film. It’s to Debicki’s credit that she makes her a believable character. The sweetness of her scenes with Sutherland is delightful (Horberg’s account of how he got him for the role spells out the importance of who-you-know-Hollywood). Smith has the elder artist spouting Yeats and Shakespeare not pretentiously, but as naturally as someone with a huge store of words hoarded over the years.

But I’m not sure why they changed the frankly even cheerfully sexual character into one who’s guiltily ‘whoring around Europe’ [cue eyeroll]. Ah, modern American puritanism. She’s ‘punishing’ herself by hanging around Figueras. He’s much more desperate and on the edge. In the novel he’s grafting as well as grifting. In the film, you get the feeling he’s scraping bottom more, thus easier to manipulate as Cassidy is more than willing to do. The transfer to Italy pays off in beauty (Visconti’s villa and grounds stand in for the collector’s summer home) what it loses in the seedy specificity of Willeford’s Florida. But in what world is this a ‘romance’ spiky or not? Only the Hollywood Reporter. Beautiful cinematography (David Ungaro) and music (Craig Armstrong) help build the neo-noir ambiance.

 

Spoilerish:

 

The guilty revelation at the final unveiling works well dramatically. In the novel the resigned self-sacrifice comes because Figueras realises he’s peaked. His confession to the crime is specifically to claim a false motivation. It’s a cover-up of the other crime that’s much more important to him and his legacy as a critic. He feels triumph.

 

DEFFO SPOILERS!

 

 

 

 

 

The breakdown of the murder into two parts makes it that much more horrible. In the book Berenice is barely more than a cypher, so her only purpose on the road trip is being knocked off. In the film the first attempt is a heat-of-the-moment thing; Figueras seems shocked by his own violence and when he talks her back up the stairs to the flat, you almost believe that he regrets it. But the anger is deep; his own fears of failure. When she taunts him with the buzzing fly sound, his move is violent, sudden and final. But he is consumed by guilt and when the fellow critic points him to the ‘Mark of Cain’ the painter left—or rather, the fingerprint Berenice left on the canvas—he’s obviously stricken. There’s no triumph. Not for Figueras anyway; Berenice’s posthumous triumph hangs from the humble refrigerator door of her mother’s house.

FFB: Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

51iefe949hl._sx317_bo1204203200_Catching up on my neglected Highsmith novels: so focused on the Ripliad lately, it’s good to remember to step aside for her other work. In her introduction Denise Mina talks about this novel being her gateway to the creepy world of Pat, completely by accident. What an introduction! This book is pure dread. It’s crime by content, but as in many of her books, the crime is hardly the main plot element. Edith’s crumbling dissolution as life keeps disappointing her is utterly terrifying as well as perfectly drawn.

It would never get published today because ‘head hopping’ is considered an insurmountable crime. Highsmith hops adroitly from Edith’s increasingly buzzing head to that of her wretched offspring, the supremely creepy Cliffie — incel supreme! — without losing the reader at all or making it too jarring. The jumping off points are well chosen. Highsmith is so good at building unsettling creepiness — Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness also do that superbly. But I think the choice of this invisible middle-aged woman adds a poignant sorrow that breaks you in a way those two novels don’t.

There’s a moment when Edith stands in the little stream in her aunt’s back garden, looking up at the house where she had often been happy. She recalls a line from a Goethe lieder (this is Highsmith, you know), ‘Kennst du das Land?’ and it captures perfectly the distance between the sometime happy child and the woman completely lost in fantasy. Edith remembers the line about the roof and the pillars, but the line that really resonates is, ‘What have they done to you, poor child?’

Highsmith shows you the obvious things, like Cliffie as a child trying to kill the family cat, or her husband’s very dull, very middle-class affair — but in throwaway lines, she also lets you know the cold family life Edith had even as a child. It’s striking that as she veers into insanity the woman not only moves from left-wing political activism to bizarre right-wing diatribes (that often match the author’s opinions) but she also becomes more creative, both in writing her alternative diary-life and her self-taught sculpture. So Pat.

Check out the FFBs at Patti’s blog. Or maybe Todd’s.

FFB: Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

41jcpvzb2ml-sx160-sy160I’m not sure why I always had it stuck in my mind that there were four books in the Ripliad. The fifth and final (thought I have an idea for a sixth, oh estate of esteemed writer) is Ripley Under Water. Released in 1991 more than a decade after The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which deserves a post of its own at some point — so much to dissect there…noting that down for yet another future project I guess: a long consideration of the Ripliad in my abundant free time), the novel has a distinctly different feel to it. No surprise, there. Much had changed in the meantime, especially going back all the way to the original novel in 1955.

Clearly Highsmith loves Ripley just as much thirty five years later. All of her sympathy is with him and concealing his crimes. She allows him to meditate on subjects near to heart (‘Were women masochists? Did that make sense? Child-birth, a stoic tolerance of pain?’). In our world of doxxing and trolling, Ripley Under Water has additional resonances. After making a successful life for himself with all the trappings of wealth he’s always wanted, achieved with really very few murders he thinks, Ripley is suddenly beset by the horror of Americans with wealth, some random facts and a grinding air of self-righteous belligerence.

In short, he has terrible new neighbours. They play loud music, they photograph his house, and they start to blackmail him about his two most important murders. The sanctuary that the little village of Villeperce offers and the fortress of Belle Ombre are besieged by Janice and David Pritchard, who seem to embody every ugly thing about Tom’s homeland — all he has sought to leave behind. His own life is a careful veneer of appearances, so it’s easy to threaten. He cannot comprehend this pair: after they exchange mock blows,

They played little games, Tom saw. And made it up in bed? Unpleasant to contemplate.

Like the toxic fans who stalk celebrities, they pingpong between wanting to befriend him and wanting to expose him. Their insistence on digging up the past unsettles the careful web of lies and deceit that Ripley has built into comfort. They threaten to unravel everything.

Sometimes his imagination was as clear as a remembered experience. And some remembered experiences faded, he supposed, such as that of killing Dickie, Murchison, even the couple of well-fed Mafia members around whose throat he had pulled a garrotte…There was indeed a screen between facts and memory, Tom realised, though he could not have given it a name. He could, of course, he thought a few seconds later, and it was self-preservation.

It’s impossible not to wonder if Highsmith gave herself the same out. She gives him musings that seem to carry the author’s own. Ripley reads Ellman’s excellent biography of Oscar Wilde, which he sums up as,

a man of goodwill, of talent, whose gifts to human pleasure remained considerable, had been attacked and brought low by the vindictiveness of hoi polloi, who had taken sadistic pleasure in watching Oscar brought low.

She then has Tom compare Oscar to Christ, with poetry, then returns to thoughts of his own persecution by the Pritchards (Highsmith has hilariously petty fun with Tom’s wife Héloïse and the other French folks mangling their name). Pritchard has too much money and too much time on his hand and too much bile. He relentlessly hunts the waterways for a body he suspects Tom has discarded.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that Tom, the eternal loner, finally makes use of the friendships he has built as part of his camouflage. Flummoxed by this perverse persecution, he discovers the value of community and almost seems to take an unexpected pleasure in it. Highsmith wraps up this improbable story in a grotesque, bizarre and hilarious way — which I suppose is the only way she could end it. Don’t worry: Tom is still up to his tricks right to the last page.

See all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.