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Any appreciation of art is entirely subjective. One can not measure the pleasure (or something otherwise) of a piece of work. A sculpture may inspire you, a film can touch you, a painting might haunt you. What you take away is personal and for you alone. For some, art is a passion that extends beyond mere interest. It is a lifelong endeavor, an obsession. And perhaps ironically, can leave one utterly blind.
Such is the case of one Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), an odd but respected auctioneer who finds himself irresistibly drawn to a young woman who hires him and his assessment team to look upon her family’s vast collection of art, furniture and more to prepare it for auction. Her parent’s have unexpectedly died and she wishes to have it all removed. When Virgil arrives at the stately villa he discovers that the woman is a recluse, so afraid of the world outside she shuts herself behind a trompe l’oeil mural with a hidden door, and will not be seen.
At first angered by her constant rescheduling and unwillingness to do face-to-face business, Virgil, who is far older, soon finds himself smitten and then obsessed and finally in love. He tricks her, hiding in the shadows behind a sculpture tucked into a corner of the large sitting room and watches as she emerges, believing she is alone. Naturally, she is stunning. Young and lithe, she moves confidently about the room, speaking on the phone to a person she calls ‘Director’, confessing a growing attraction for Virgil.
In a sense, Oldman is the mirror of Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), his newfound love. While obviously wealthy, he lives in a lavish penthouse, dining alone in fancy restaurants, always wearing gloves and finding peace in a secret room, accessed by remote control and high tech security, filled from floor to ceiling on all walls with treasured portraits of women, all of which he has procured, somewhat dubiously as the auctioneer with a cohort named Billy (Sutherland). Alone in this room, he sits and admires the masterpiece collection, aware of their worth but more attached to their soulful beauty than the value of their art.
His only real friend is Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young artisan clockmaker and mechanical engineer who Oldman has asked to help in assembling an odd set of corroded gears and parts that he has been discovering in the collection of things being assessed in Claire’s stately villa. He confides to him of his feelings and seeks his advice for luring the girl out of her seclusion. In a way, it is advice that works for him as well. Yet there are mysteries far greater to be discovered and while Virgil opens his heart (and home) to a love he as never experienced, he has one more valuable and devastating lesson to learn.
The Best Offer, or as it is properly known, La migliore offerta, is an English language Italian film that never truly aspires to be realistic, instead, painting broad strokes to tell a simple story with a few, perhaps predictable surprises. What it does do very well is provide a wonderful showcase for the lead actors and is a delight to watch as we witness the evolution Virgil as his once antiseptic world slowly unravels.
Virgil has been coming to the villa frequently, finding reasons to visit the hermit girl. His curiosity has driven him to unthinkable ends and upon his departure after a short meeting, where he once again converses with her through the wall, he makes a bold decision and pretends to leave. With some confidence, he does it again, but this time, it has consequences.
Virgil Oldman is a man of rigid routine and compulsive behavior. So seduced by his own world and needs, he has little regard for those with whom he is close, at least within his own circle. When an assistant, who runs Oldman’s daily schedule, is asked about his marriage, or more in fact, if in fact he is married, he looks on in wonder and shock at the sudden breach of their typically sterile relationship. All that Virgil has come to expect in life is crumbling under the weight of his need not just to be near Claire, or discover who she is, but simply to see her, to look upon her face and figure and satisfy both an emotional and lustful urge that has gripped him with voraciously. We already know that he is not above deceit to acquire what he desires. His friend Billy, a wealthy art collector works as an accomplice, sitting in on auctions, outbidding buyers on appraised forgeries, which are actually authentic, and giving them to Oldman for his private collection. In the villa, he steals himself into the shadows like a peeping Tom. The first time was innocent, perhaps natural. Now, it is something else.
The scene is raw. It feels wrong because it is, but he does exactly what must of are hoping he will do. Believing herself alone, the girl emerges draped in a loose open robe, feeling safe in her home, unafraid of the exposure. She is remarkably different than what we suspected. She is confident, relaxed, playful. It is clear that the presence of anyone is traumatic for her, and the seclusion her secret room provides the anonymity she needs to conduct the minimalist of relationships. Alone, she is wholly opposite. Yet there is something oddly off about her behavior. We expect timidity, a sense of dread or even a hesitation in her stride, but none of that is present. She glides along the floor with an almost brash sensibility. When she injures her toe, she does not panic or express any distress we would think she might thinking any serious wound would require exposing herself to the outside world for assistance. When she sits in the chair, her robe open and legs apart, revealing she is nude, plying her lips over her toe, do we see it through the male gaze, Virgil’s, and apply the obvious sexual reference because that is how he does, or is it just a young woman alone, taking care of herself? For Virgil, it is too much. Drenched in sweat, the sight of her in such a position, weakens his stance and things fall apart.
The Best Offer is not a film that strives for authenticity or even plausibility. That is not the intention. It tosses kernels like “Human emotions are like art. They can be forged” not to be profound, but remind us that nothing is hidden if we watch closely. It is a story, a fable, a spun tale of a lonely man who, despite his respected position in society and his famously accurate reputation for spotting fakes and forgeries in the world of high art, is himself a fraud, though he isn’t truly aware until this fault leaves him unguarded, and by then it’s too late. It would be a mistake to consider this film as depicting something real, as it never tries to be. It’s morality lesson is nothing subtle, but the richness of the performances, the intrigue of the story, the beautifully cinematography, and sublime score by film treasure Ennio Morricone paint a wonderful viewing experience.
The experience begins with Geoffrey Rush. The multi-award winning actor is spellbindingly good here, creating a character that is fascinating to watch. From the start we learn his visage is as real as the forgeries he sells. His gray hair is professionally colored, his suits immaculate and his unhealthy collection of gloves a signature of the distance he maintains from normality. It is just a out of touch. When we finally see his true love, his collection of near priceless female portraits, it is painfully clear that this is not a stable man.
Rush has a big job. He has to remain likable while still being a rather despicable person. At least at first. Naturally, the metamorphosis would have no meaning otherwise, but Rush keeps us interested and engaged, mostly because we are as curious as he. He is just below cruel in his personal relationships but that insensitivity also has garnered a trust as a practitioner of his trade, ruling over the auction block like a demigod, to which everyone responds with supreme admiration. Claire changes him, as any good woman in these kinds of film do. The hard part is accepting the tremendous age difference. She is not yet 30 while his age, not actually mentioned is surely over 60. An older man with a very young woman is nothing new in movies. It’s a tired trope, but here it has a purpose, and it is not entirely clear why until we see the motivations of all the players come to fruition. Most interestingly, though not surprising, Claire becomes Virgil’s first. The experience of not just the sex but the time after, lying in bed watching her sleep transfixes him and he regals in the telling of the story with his friend Robert as if he is bragging on the school yard. The fable is flowering beautifully.
And so we come to Robert, played by Sturgess. He is a character that exists only in stories such as these and Sturgess plays him so cooly, so approachable, we overlook the obvious device. But as this is a fable, his part is crucial, and despite the utterly improbable success of his workshop on the main streets of Prague – he fixes typewriters and old clocks – he is our ears and our voice, allowing Virgil to tell us everything in his heart. The workshop and the parts all in and out of tune are representative of Virgil throughout the story.
This is most especially expressed in the assembly of the gears and parts discovered in the villa. It is a 17th century automaton that Robert is slowly able to put together, and it appears–in various degrees of completeness–in the background of nearly every scene where the two men meet and discuss Virgil’s new relationship. There is no escaping the connection and we are not meant to guess. It is clearly a reflection of Virgil’s late-budding manhood and more importantly, the girl with whom he is discovering. Robert even talks about the creation as slowly emerging from the shadows. Indeed.
Of course the girl is the key. Claire is a broken young woman, ravaged by agoraphobia and the sudden death of her parents. Sylvia Hoeks is a beautiful young actress but plays it down here, often rumpled, walking stiffly and fearful. The kindness and persistence of Virgil agrees with her and she is drawn to him right from the start. She has no qualms about age, in fact tells him she detests men who color their hair. At one point, he spends a great deal of time trying to make her into a woman he think women want to be, buying her expensive clothes and cosmetics. These failed attempt echo romantic comedy montages of the Julia Roberts kind where the lady dons a variety of colorful attire as the rich, older man looks on. Here it is earnest and compelling as we see the older man stumbling to fill a void he knows nothing about and a girl frustrated as she misreads his attempt. And that is Claire. She is a vortex of pain, misery, beauty, and allure, and Virgil is helpless in her presence. She is a tinderbox of emotions and seems to have no experience with self expression or even basic interpersonal communication skills. Her wealth has afforded her privileges that have left these foibles unchecked and she is a sea-saw of responses that at first repel and then attract. Claire is a mystery. Most especially, she is convincing.
There is one more important character in all of this, that of a little person who lives across the way from the villa and sits in the front of a pub staring out into the streets and beyond. She is a savant of uncanny ability, with perfect photographic memory and mathematical skills beyond comprehension. She is witness to much of the proceedings and, as we come to learn, much of what occurs before. We might question her silence, and her loyalties, as we discover the truth, and wonder just who she calls the night when something terrible, (planned or unplanned?) sends Virgil to the emergency room. When she reveals her name and source of her income, we begin to see the larger picture and how deep a trust can be betrayed.
That leads us to the ending. Usually, our posts keep no secrets and spoilers are a condition of the reading. Strangely, we feel this film deserves an exception. Some may see the ending as the only possible scenario, while some are sure to be surprised. For us, as we accepted this story as the fable it is, it was thoroughly heartbreaking. Indeed, if we were to truly examine the film as work of truth, we would be burdened by myriad questions, especially about the plausibility of the immense undertaking of those who play out the final act. But how things occur are far less important than why things occur, and as we follow Virgil down the rabbit hole, we watch with immeasurable sadness as the camera pulls back on the final scene and we see his circle close. Love is the most beautiful and most dangerous of all human emotions.
While not a resounding success, the film is often criticized for being too shallow and overly-dependent on symbolism and subtext. We will not disagree, but this never detracts and in fact, helps to secure its morality tale feel. Like a filmed fable, the characters are overly drawn, the sets lavish and ripe with clues, the plot a thickly built pyramid ascending to a satisfying peak. It hinges on its performances, and as in our chosen scene, showcases how we are all creatures of curiosity, sometimes forgeries of who we claim to be, and every so often left vulnerable by a passion that may free us but leave us unmercifully blind.