January 15, 2014

ON FILM: Tornatore’s creepy art auctioneer in The Best Offer

Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) admiring his secret collection of ladies in Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer.
Guest Contributor Jonathan Stevenson / In Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer, Geoffrey Rush, who never fails to ebulliently exude neurosis, plays Virgil Oldman – a high-end art auctioneer so learned and perspicacious that even his two-man operation apparently competes with Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and so fastidious that he even eats dinner wearing gloves selected from a vast display case at his vault-like compound. But as Hitchcock taught us, nobody with that kind of eccentricity is likely to find bliss without ordeal. Oldman’s need to control his world down to the minutest detail makes him a covetous fraudster. He spots the obscure work of great artists in the estates he evaluate, deems them admirable forgeries, auctions them to a paid accomplice (an agreeably hammy Donald Sutherland) for a fraction of their true value, and hoards them in his own secret museum. This larcenous side, of course, is his great vulnerability.

Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland 
For all his public esteem and private wealth, Oldman’s life has been loveless until he is hired by Claire Ibbetson (a pallid Sylvia Hoeks) – a much younger novelist driven by personal tragedy to confine herself to a decaying estate – to assess her family’s possessions. He falls hard for her, and extends his desire to possess what he loves to Claire herself, coaxing her from her self-imposed prison only in effect to sequester her in one of his own devising. Until its generously telegraphed denouement, the film unfolds like a folie à deux in which two high-functioning agoraphobics improbably find each other and live unhappily ever after. Despite Rush’s best efforts, lovely cinematography, and a plot twist, it’s a labored movie, with too many seams showing – Hitchcock-lite.



[Minor Spoiler Alert] For all these flaws, The Best Offer remains an insightful meditation on the nature of authenticity as a form of artifice and convention. Oldman's emotional pain in discovering that Claire is not who she seems to be is no less than it would be had he lost the woman he thought he'd had. Beyond that, in casting the loss of his rich trove of original masterpieces as a mere incident of a greater emotional devastation, Tornatore puts a fine point on the notion that art is meant to be part of life and not a substitute for it.

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