Movie review: The Best Offer
Love is blind, and sometimes the love of art can be blinding
Posted: September 18, 2013
Portrait of the auctioneer as an Oldman. Virgil Oldman, a famous art auctioneer who collects portraits of women, is about to meet a real-life work of art.
Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is a respected auctioneer in Vienna who lives a very lonely life of luxury. He is surrounded by works of art every day at work, and he dines at some of the most expensive restaurants in the city at night. But he does so alone.
At home, he has a special room where his most-prized possessions adorn three very high walls: portraits of women, all staring back at him while he lounges in a comfortable chair in the center of the room, reads gilded literature and consumes a glass of pricey wine.
He has dedicated his life to his job at the auction house, and he has not let anybody get close to him in all that time (he always wears gloves, because he distrusts other people's hygiene), although his frequent sessions at the barbershop, where he dyes his hair, suggest he has not given up looking quite yet.
And then, one day, he gets a call from Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), a woman who wants him to appraise the value of her substantial collection of paintings and antique furniture. She phones him, arranges to meet with him, and he starts appraising the objects in the expansive villa. But there is something a bit off: He never sees her.
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
With Geoffrey Rush, Sylvia Hoeks, Jim Sturgess, Donald Sutherland
It transpires that she has been living alone in the house for many years, and she has an assistant, who has never seen her either but delivers her groceries and cleans up after her. This mystery casts a spell over Oldman, and of course he slowly gets reeled in by this creature not only because of her sensuous voice but also because of the many items that suggest a great deal of value. Mostly, however, it is because of a few unexplained metal objects he finds lying around the cellar.
He gives these bits and pieces, which he inexplicably finds lying around the cellar every time he visits the villa, to Robert (a very engaging Jim Sturgess), a charming young clocksmith he has become friends with (although, significantly, we do not see how this friendship is struck), who puts the pieces together without much trouble, and the two of them quickly realize these are all part of an automaton, the kind of 19th-century robot, perhaps even older, that also made an appearance in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Moreover, the supposed inventor is someone Oldman has been studying his whole life. If they manage to put the pieces together, this would be a stunning discovery.
While the relationship between Oldman and Claire becomes more intimate, and he grows more and more fond of her, despite her hysterical outbursts of "I love you! I hate you! Oh, forgive me, I do love you!" he also confides his feelings - heretofore alien to him - of romantic interest in the young woman to Robert.
But Claire remains an enigma. At some point, the viewer may very well start to suspect she may be an automaton herself, or perhaps the real-life version of one of the portraits on his wall, but the director doesn't drop enough hints to make us pursue this line of thought, which could have yielded some interesting results.
The director is Giuseppe Tornatore, whose 1988 film Cinema Paradiso may very well be the most evocative film about the cinema ever made, but the director's handling of English material is as mediocre as can be expected. The dialogue is at times silly, and the delivery is far from polished.
Oldman is at the center of every single scene, and we obliquely take on his point of view, which is a very good strategy, given the revelations toward the end of the story. Unfortunately, this is the second big film about art this year that tries to trick the viewer by putting up a façade that tries to blind us to the actual goings-on, and the year's earlier Trance did it somewhat better, as The Best Offer pretends that everything works according to plan, whereas Trance didn't always have that same kind of pretension.
The theme of forgery also could have been exploited to a much greater degree, and so too Oldman's statement that there is always something authentic in a fake. Tornatore loses a real opportunity for depth here by not relating it better to his own film.
The cinematography is badly handled and very rough around the edges. Despite a beautiful opening sequence that underlines the exquisite service of the restaurant Oldman frequents, a particularly grating moment occurs halfway through the film when he is given access to a hidden room, but instead of a tracking shot following him into the room, the camera starts to follow him and then abruptly cuts to a position in front of him, inside the room. The reverse tracking shot that ends the film, inside a very different Pivnice u Milosrdných at the bottom of Kozí Street in Prague 1 that locals will be used to, demonstrates what kind of approach Tornatore could have taken here, in a scene that actually needed such a shot.
The music of Ennio Morricone, which is not altogether dissimilar to some of his work on Once Upon a Time in America, suggests a measure of mystery but is never strong enough to make any real impact on our experience of the film.
Far below his marquee Cinema Paradiso, this film is certainly not the best currently on offer.
André Crous can be reached at