“The Best Offer” by Giuseppe Tornatore

Nothing Is What It Seems

Like many excellent films, The Best Offer (2013), Giuseppe Tornatore’s psychological thriller, is a variation on a well-worn theme.

He is rich, successful, sophisticated and, as his name (Oldman) suggests, past his prime. A great art expert, he can tell a forgery from the real thing because, as he says, the forger can’t resist the temptation to add some personal touch – an unsuspected stroke or an unimportant detail – by which he ends up betraying himself. In short, there is always something authentic concealed in every forgery.

If the greatest forgers can’t fool him, who will?

She, on the other hand, is mysterious, fragile, alluring, and young enough to be his daughter.

When it’s all over he changes beyond recognition.

Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush, in a tour-de-force performance) is an esteemed auctioneer and art dealer who lives a reclusive life in a nameless European city. He always wears gloves, dyes his hair, doesn’t have a cell phone, and never slept with a woman. Cold as a steel trap and stiff as a dummy, he goes about his business with the mechanical precision of a cyborg. He is part man, part machine, a robot in human skin you may have seen in the so-called real world, too.  

Yet Virgil is not your typical, or stereotypical, man of success with a smug smile on his blank face. Let’s take one of the first scenes. Virgil sits motionless in a posh restaurant and stares as if hypnotized at a dainty cake with a burning candle, his birthday present from the chef. The camera zooms in on the cake, then on his face, the candle melts, and you can sense that something at once important and strange is going on, something that defies the laws of optics, because what Virgil sees before him is not the cake or the candle, but his life now and in the not-too-distant future. In a moment of sudden revelation he realizes that life is too short to be wasted on the “Renaissance dessert made of choux cream and bitter almonds,” declines the cake, and leaves the restaurant. If you watch this scene once again, you will see the small sculpture of a nude male with a stump for an arm (at 1:35), which gives us a sly hint that there is something missing in Virgil’s life, too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdMGMZKpcgc

Virgil owns a magnificent collection of female portraits he amassed by deceit and trickery with the help of his friend Billy (Donald Sutherland), the failed artist. It’s so precious to him that he keeps it in a high-security room (anti-burglary door, electronic lock) hidden behind a wall of shelves for gloves. There Virgil spends his evenings, feasting his eyes on “his women,” as he fondly calls his portraits, and worshiping them like goddesses. Virgil can get away from the world for a while, but he can’t get away from himself. For that to happen, he must meet a flesh-and-blood woman and shelve those gloves – a huge challenge for someone who fears women no less than germs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE436FSC4fg 

Enter she, Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks).

Claire, an attractive young woman, lives alone in a villa she inherited from her parents. One day she hires Virgil to auction off her collection of art and antiques. Soon it becomes clear that for some reason Claire is reluctant to meet Virgil face to face. Initially, Virgil wants to withdraw but changes his mind on finding out that she suffers from agoraphobia (an abnormal fear of open spaces). In fact, throughout half of the film Claire communicates with Virgil only by phone and through the door to her secret suite, watching him from time to time through the peephole hidden among frescoes.

A subplot involves Virgil finding old rusty mechanical parts in Claire’s villa. He shows them to a young do-it-yourselfer, Robert (Jim Sturgess), who determines that they once belonged to the android constructed by Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), the French inventor. Robert says he will rebuild it if Virgil delivers the missing pieces.

But let’s return to the main narrative: Claire draws Virgil into a push-pull relationship, in which flattery, courtship and affection mix with outbursts of anger, fits of hysterics, sudden disappearances, miraculous reappearances, and so on. Eventually Virgil discovers the joys of sex, falls in love with Claire, and shows her his collection. Claire tells Virgil that no matter what may happen to them, she wants him to know she does love him. Virgil returns home one day to find that his entire collection and Claire are gone. In the empty room is Vaucanson’s android, an eerie replica of Virgil’s former robotic self, which plays a message from Robert saying, There is always something authentic concealed in every forgery. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’ll miss you, Mr. Oldman.

In the coffee shop across the street from Claire’s home Virgil meets a woman with a prodigious memory (Kiruna Stamell), who tells him that she owns the villa; that she often rents it out to “cinema people”; that two years before the burglary she let it out to a “really nice boy who could fix anything”; and that in a year and a half “agoraphobic” Claire went out 237 times.

Virgil has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. In the last scene, he arrives in Prague to wait “for someone” in a bizarre restaurant full of clocks and gears, the only place Claire was happy and for which she felt nostalgic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAPgzWhjwR4  

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The plot of The Best Offer follows a chronological order all the way to the burglary, after which Virgil’s world falls apart and we need to reconstruct the sequence of events from flashbacks that raise various questions, such as, Did Virgil recover from his breakdown? Was he hospitalized before or after coming to Prague? Did Claire somehow arrange to meet him? Did Virgil come to Prague on the off-chance of meeting Claire, or did he invent the whole scene in the mental institution?

Another question is, Who was the mastermind behind the scam? Of course Robert rents the villa, rebuilds Vaucanson’s android, and makes a fool of Virgil. But then, it’s not inconceivable that he is just a kind of liaison between Virgil and the real mastermind, an older and more experienced man operating in the shadows. Which brings us to Billy.

As his longtime friend and fellow swindler, Billy knows Virgil’s habits, secrets, and weaknesses. The only thing he doesn’t know is where Virgil keeps his treasure and that’s why he devises an elaborate scheme, using Claire the actress as bait. Significantly, toward the end of the film Billy sends Virgil a painting he did. If you take a closer look at it, you will see that it’s strikingly similar to the portrait of Claire’s mother Virgil saw in the villa long before the theft. This would imply that Billy and Claire, who never met in the film and supposedly didn’t know each other, were in cahoots. What’s more, Billy almost gives himself away by saying to Virgil, Human emotions are like works of art. They can be forged. They seem like the original, but they’re a forgery … Everything can be faked, Virgil. Joy, pain, hate. Illness, recovery. Even love.

Judging from the plot, Billy may have been driven by motives more complex than common greed. It’s quite possible that he wanted to take revenge on Virgil for not appreciating his great artistic talent and not believing in him. At one point Virgil says to Billy, A love of art and knowing how to hold a brush doesn’t make a man an artist. You need an inner mystery, and that, my dear Billy, you’ve never possessed. Virgil is essentially right because true artists are born, not made, but his opinion about Billy is, at best, debatable, and, at worst, cruel – especially coming from a friend. I believe that writer, what’s-his-name, was correct: Wounded pride is no laughing matter, particularly where art is concerned.

Another question that comes to mind is, Can love be completely faked? Billy claims love is no different from other human emotions which, as we know from experience, are faked by men and women alike. On the other hand, Virgil argues, and proved as an art appraiser, that there is always something authentic concealed in every forgery, which would imply that Claire the con artist might love him, after all. This brings us to yet another, very important, question, Will Virgil and Claire meet at the restaurant in Prague? Virgil, unfortunately for himself, confuses art with life (take, for example, his women), so he believes they will, but if you agree with his friend-turned-nemesis Billy that everything can be faked, you know they won’t.  We fall for con artists, not the other way around.        

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At first blush it might seem that The Best Offer is a very pessimistic film. Virgil loses almost everything – his priceless collection, his prestigious job, and the love of his life. On top of that, the thieves who robbed and humiliated him in cold blood and, as my attorney friend would say, with deliberate intent, get away without a trace, without punishment, without even prosecution! We get the sense that there is no room for decency or justice in this movie.

But let’s look at it from a different angle. Before meeting Claire Virgil is a selfish, vain, misanthropic person. He lives a miserable life chasing material possessions, many of which he obtains by fraud. Interestingly, he can’t report the burglary to the police because he knows that an investigation will reveal his shady deals with Billy. Now, let’s face it: Virgil is no less crooked than the crooks who conned him. And yet – to his credit – he has a passion for art, which is the cause of his inner conflict between the material and the spiritual, so brilliantly captured in the cake scene. After meeting Claire he gets out in the real world, becomes, as they say, a better person, stops dying his hair and wearing gloves or, to put it differently, accepts himself as he is and overcomes his aversion to people. But most importantly, he no longer lives only for himself. In this sense, the last scene with Virgil waiting for someone takes on a symbolic meaning.

One final detail to note: The Best Offer begins and ends in a restaurant, except that the first scene deals with eating, and the last with love. 

 

 

©  Krzysztof Mąkosa

 

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Writer: Giuseppe Tornatore (story and screenplay)

Cinematography: Fabio Zamarion

Music: Ennio Morricone

Starring: Geoffrey Rush (Virgil Oldman), Sylvia Hoeks (Claire Ibbetson), Jim Sturgess (Robert), Donald Sutherland (Billy), et al.

 

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