Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Best Offer” follows the downfall of an uptight main character, played by Geoffrey Rush, who leads through an iconic fairytale forest to his own wreck. There’s even a princess imprisoned in a tower, and the breadcrumbs through the plantation take on the pattern of small mysterious rusty cogs which, when engaged simultaneously, conceive an intimidating 18th-century automaton, a mind of its own respectively. The illusion here is menacing and seductive, and Virgil Old Man (Rush) can’t seem to stop himself from delving deeper and deeper into the plantation. It’s all a bit overheated, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the melodrama, the difficulty arises when the screenplay (also by Tornatore) insists on interpreting its own imagery and subtext to ensure we understand just how deep that is thing is. The script here is a 5-page historical paper with too many footnotes, filled with lines like “Human strong feelings are like art. They can be fictional.” Got it? There’s just too much of this happening: what’s the problem with having an emblem if you don’t declare it to death?
Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil Old Man, an auctioneer who sprints a high-end appraisal business, scouring others’ antiques while listing auction catalogues. He specializes in detecting counterfeits based on the original. He is a tortured and isolated man, consuming only in a posh bistro where waiters anxiously buzz around him. He resides in solitary splendor in a penthouse luxury suite filled with figures and artwork, complete with a mysterious room filled with his much-loved paintings (all of women giving Virgil creepy shades of Bluebeard). He usually wears hand coverings. He has no friends. Well, apart from a bright young mechanic named Robert (Jim Sturgess) who repairs old gear in a huge shop front in a posh part of the village that makes you wonder how the hell he can afford to lease such a shop. Robert never rises above his function as an obvious plot device, a false “listening ear” for Virgil to let us know what Virgil is dreaming up.
Early in the film, as we see Virgil running his enterprise, some of it upfront and some of it shady (with an accomplice named Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland), he receives a mysterious phone call from a woman titled Claire ( Sylvia Hooks). Claire’s parents have passed away suddenly and she needs someone to come to her property and look at all her belongings. Virgil is a reserved person, but there’s something compelling about Claire’s voice on the phone. She doesn’t show up for their first meeting, which infuriates Virgil, and later calls back with a half-baked article about a car accident and an emergency room visit. This happens again and again. By this point, a gigantic group of appraisers have taken over Claire’s mansion, and Virgil has teamed up with the caretaker, who has worked at the mansion for years but admits he has never seen Claire in the body footage.
Virgil becomes possessed by the invisible Claire in a way reminiscent of the hard-nosed Dana Andrews falling in love with Gene Tierney’s painting of Otto Preminger’s Laura. Claire’s phone calls become more and more anxious and tearful, and finally, in a tense scene after hours at the mansion, Virgil hides behind a character so he can see her, her only coming out of her room (which is hidden behind). a trompe-l’oeil mural) when all the people are gone. Youthful and bright, Claire wanders freely, on the phone to someone she calls “Headmaster” while Virgil, drenched in sweat, examines.
There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track, but the script reminds you of its most important emblems. There’s the fake theme, there’s the slot machine theme and its questions of life and identity, all of which were handled better in “Certified Copy” and “Hugo,” not to mention dystopian noir melodramas like “Blade Runner.” There’s no reason for Virgil and Jim to become partners, and for Virgil to confide in Jim about his obsession with Claire, the Faith. Since we don’t see Claire for most of the movie, when she shows up, we’re just as curious about her as Virgil is. She is an agoraphobic who has not left the house since she was young. Regrettably, the film gives her a veritable makeover look, straight out of the Pretty Woman rendition, albeit of a creepier kind. And while we’re clearly not meant to think this is a healthy pairing, it’s still lopsided. Isn’t there a more intriguing way to deal with an imprisoned princess than this jaded cliché?
The film explores amazingly, thanks to Fabio Zamarion’s lush and immersive cinematography. Claire’s Manor is a masterpiece of conception and artistic conception (Maurizio Sabatini and Andrea Di Palma respectively). The apartment explores both earthy and magical at the same time, a place where one could possibly hide in forever.
At the beginning of the film, Virgil says to his seedy sidekick Billy, who is also an aspiring artist, “A love of art and understanding how to hold a paintbrush does not make an artist.” What constitutes art, Virgil says, is a ” inner mystery”. However, with good performances and a wonderfully moody look and feel, “The Best Offer” completely lacks that “inner mystery”.