A State of Permanent Anxiety:
The Best Offer
“Each facet catches the light in its own way. It glints and sparkles and flashes uniquely. It would be almost possible to believe that the facet was the jewel; not just a tiny part of it. But, then, as we move the jewel another facet catches the light…”
The Sandman Volume Nine: The Kindly Ones
I can’t stop thinking about this film; I simply can’t. Last night, it gave me a tormented half-sleep as its images formed, broke up and reshaped themselves as new ones.
And I’m unable for the life of me to say why. Certainly I’ll understand if I find, when I check after writing this, that others have taken little away from it. To me, though, writer and director Giuseppe Tarrantori’s first English-language film The Best Offer stands as an astonishing achievement, one to be studied and pored over, held up to the light and viewed from different angles and admired for its many facets.
It’s a puzzle, both the film itself and my reaction to it. Certainly I can’t think of any way in which I relate to the main protagonist Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush). Well, perhaps one: whilst understanding in a vague way the concept of loneliness, I’ve never really experienced it, despite living much of my life alone. Of course, the same could be said of anyone who spends a significant amount of time with the printed word. You are always conscious that you write in a vacuum, to steal that apt expression. For all that I know, I may drop dead just as I type the very last word of these musings and no one will ever know they existed.
And of course, who would be the poorer for that? The point is in getting them out of my head in the first place; and that really only has a point for me. If a tree falls in an empty forest with no one to hear it then has it actually happened and all that existential bullshit. I’ve always wanted to say to that: “’Course it has, you bleedin’ eejit; what do you think’s happened to it?”
Virgil is a man who would be very happy living completely away from other human beings. When we meet him at first, he appears to be a rather unpleasant individual. He is seemingly vain, with his dyed hair and his monogrammed dinner service. He has an enormous collection of gloves for every item of dress and occasion which he wears at all times, claiming that it is a simple matter of hygiene. And it is very apparent that he relishes only the minimum of human contact, especially with women.
Yet no sooner do we think that we have Virgil classified, filed and stapled than we realize that he is also a very successful auction house managing director who plays ringmaster over his bids with a finely-tuned sense of humour that is enormously appreciated by his well-heeled clientele.
Amongst these is someone who appears to be at least partially a friend. This is Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland; and because this actor is so natural in such roles we take it for granted that he is a rich collector; but that will prove to be twice in the first fifteen minutes that the audience has had its initial perceptions turned upside down—and there will be more. For in fact, Virgil and Billy have together been running a scam for many years: because of his inside knowledge Virgil, with Billy’s paid connivance, has accumulated a massive collection of expensive female portraits; and it is only in his heavily-secured, womb-like room that he appears able to relax completely. He is one of those strange and eccentric human beings who feel no need to share the appreciation of beautiful things. He is also rather unfeeling towards Whistler, who has dreams of being appreciated as a painter himself; and I wonder if this is part of the irony of his name. (I’m also tempted to try tracing the naming of Virgil to the Aeneid, just to see where that leads; but I think that I’ll leave that for further viewings, something that this marvelous film almost demands.) In any case, Virgil tells him:
“The love of Art and knowing how to hold a brush does not make a man an artist. You need an inner mystery; and that, dear Billy, you will never possess.”
It is on his 63rd birthday that Virgil receives a phone call that will change his life profoundly. He is asked by a wealthy and mysterious young recluse, Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks) to value and sell off the collection of paintings and antiques in her late parents’ home. Virgil never sees her, as she suffers from a deep and debilitating agoraphobia. He can only talk to her through a tiny gap in the wall of the room where she spends her life. Significantly, the gap is painted around by a bird in flight, the still image representing a freedom that seems to be denied the girl.
At this point we meet the only other significant being in Virgil’s self-contained existence. When he begins to find parts of a mysterious mechanical device throughout Claire’s home, he takes the pieces to Robert (Jim Sturgess), a quite brilliant young man with a talent for putting broken things together again. As he slowly reconstructs an ingenious early automaton (I couldn’t help thinking that Philip K. Dick would have appreciated this film), he begins to give advice to the sexually unworldly Virgil, who in the face of a growing obsession with Claire is becoming less and less in control of his feelings. “Can you fix a broken auctioneer as well?” he asks him. And of course Virgil is attracted to Claire without having actually looked on her. He knows that they’re alike: “Everyone has moments when they prefer solitude to the multitudes”.
And crucially we see that it isn’t just rudeness and disconnection that has kept Virgil in his own self-contained prison:
“The regard I’ve had for women has always been equal to the fear I have of them; that, and my failure to understand them.”
Virgil determines to see her, even if he has to do it in a sneaky way. In fact, he means the girl only good and is already well on the way to falling in love with her; but the moral question is: if she doesn’t want to be seen, has he the right to ignore that—even with the best of intentions?
I don’t wish to say much more as I hope that you go to it pretty much as I did, knowing little except that it is by the man who gave us Cinema Paradiso. It also features the composer of that movie, the immortal Ennio Morricone; and the quite lovely cinematography is from Fabio Zamarion.
It is a feast for the eye. Does it play with mirror-image motifs? I wasn’t sure if perhaps I wasn’t reading too much into it, when suddenly Claire mentioned that in the outside world a restaurant that she had liked was called the ‘Night And Day’. There are other clues, I believe. When in Claudio’s house, Tarrantori’s frame is almost cluttered with beautiful things; just as Robert’s workspace is chaotic and yet out of that will come beauty.
The motif of Time and the imagery of clocks (even astronomical ones) and gears are almost overwhelming and do indeed ultimately become simply breathtaking. To use Virgil’s phrase out of context: it is “a tortured, fortunate catalogue” of things and emotions. He wants desperately to believe that Time can make any kind of co- habitation possible.
This is a tour de force for Geoffrey Rush. Even taking into account his Oscar-winning performance in Shine and his, to me, equally brilliant take on the Marquis de Sade in Quills, this may just be a career-best. He runs the gamut here, because there is so much to savour and ponder over in The Best Offer, not to mention the not-inconsiderable question of what is real and what is not?
“There’s always something authentic concealed in a forgery”, says Virgil. And Robert is there with the observation that “human emotions are like works of Art. They can be forged. They look just like the original, but they’re forged.”
It’s a disturbing thought in a disturbing, provocative, beautiful and tragic film.
“Our automaton is about to emerge from the shadows”, says Robert.
Yes, it is; in The Best Offer many things are about to emerge from their shadows.