“The Best Offer” is a movie in which writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore, still best known for the beloved “Cinema Paradiso,” doesn’t play fair. He effectively strings us along during the first two acts under the pretense of telling a love story between two very eccentric people. But then the final act begins, and just like that, everything we thought the film had been about collapses into a pile of rubble. This section of the film is kick started by a doozy of a plot twist, one that reveals the story to, in fact, not be a love story at all but some kind of bizarre mystery thriller. Nothing about the film up to that point could have supported the twist, but apart from that, it hints at something so impossibly elaborate within the narrative that it’s more self indulgent than clever. It doesn’t help that the surprise ending explains nothing regarding the motivations of specific characters.
Before that fatal final act, which I’m obviously not supposed to describe in detail, I was under the impression that the film was a character study, one that I found to be oddly absorbing. The central character is Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), the refined managing director of a European auction house specializing in art and antiques. We immediately take notice of his personality quirks, which go beyond his encyclopedic knowledge of art history and his almost superhuman ability to spot forgeries. He almost always keeps gloves on his hands, taking them off only to softly touch a portrait he’s fascinated by. He will only talk into a phone if it’s covered by a handkerchief. His luxurious apartment looks more like a well-kept museum, and he keeps himself trim, wearing designer suits and regularly having his hair dyed black. And he doesn’t own a cell phone.
Above all, we notice that he isn’t all that social, especially around women. He is, in fact, intensely afraid of women; he can never look a woman directly in the eye, and whenever he addresses one, he’s far more prone to lose his patience over the smallest things. He openly admits that he doesn’t understand women. And yet, paradoxically, he’s hopelessly intrigued by them. We know this because a rather spacious room hidden behind his glove closet, which can only be accessed by entering a code into a high tech lock mechanism, houses an impressive stash of portraits, all of women. He will sit in this cavernous room and just stare at his collection, presumably because the paintings give him the freedom to observe the opposite sex without having to invest emotionally. They were all obtained, it should be noted, with the help of his friend, Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), a scam artist who poses as a bidder at Oldman’s auctions and intentionally wins the portraits for him.
The plot involves Oldman being hired by a young heiress/writer to inventory and auction off her family’s extensive collection of valuable antiques and art pieces. Her name is Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), and she repeatedly tests Oldman’s patience by scheduling meetings with him over the phone, not showing up, calling him back to apologize and reschedule, then not show up yet again. It’s soon discovered that she has been calling from within her crumbling villa the entire time, that she suffers from such a severe case of agoraphobia that she cannot bear to be physically seen. When people are present in her home, she remains barricaded in a room hidden behind a fresco. When she’s alone, she will emerge and roam the various rooms, although she stops short of actually going outdoors.
The more Oldman gets to know Ibbetson, the more compelled he is coax her out of her hiding place. He wouldn’t be able to do this unless he cared about her, and indeed, he is developing feelings he thus far didn’t know himself capable of feeling. Not knowing how to handle the situation, he turns to a local handyman named Robert (Jim Sturgess), a seasoned ladies’ man, for advice. This coincides with a subplot involving bits and pieces of rusty gears and cogs Oldman has been finding all around Ibbetson’s villa; he secretly collects them and takes them to Robert with the hope that they can be reassembled. It’s soon determined that the pieces were once part of a century-old automaton, which would entertain the paying masses by directly answering any question it was asked. This was made possible due to a little person hiding underneath the figure and awaiting his/her cue to speak.
What does this have to do with the main plot? In a similar fashion as Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” “The Best Offer” relies on the broad concept of art as a metaphor for how we perceive reality. Are we seeing what’s real, or only what we want to be real? Can life be forged in the same way that art can, and if so, does that make it any less authentic? The problem is that Kiarostami explored this idea so much more effectively than Tornatore. I have no doubt this is because Tornatore cheats at the last minute with his plot twist, which not only reverses absolutely everything we thought we knew about the story but also proves hopelessly implausible and narratively unsatisfying. Leaving the film, I felt as if I had been duped, and the more I thought about the experience, the angrier I became.