SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals plot twists best enjoyed on a first viewing of the movie and this article will be better understood after viewing the film.
In 2013, the movie The Best Offer was released, starring Geoffrey Rush, who plays an art expert named Virgil Oldman. His character deals in the rarest of pieces at his own private auction house and provides professional valuations of antique paintings and furniture. In so doing, he makes indirect and philosophical valuations of the modern world. I wouldn’t describe this movie as predictive programming, per se, but it does showcase the elitist form of entertainment as entrainment and drops a few truths along the way.
Virgil Oldman represents the old world and all its secrets, and he’s woefully out of place in the new. He’s rightly enamored by antiquity, suggesting that it holds fascinating and useful secrets in its art, architecture, and technology. Oldman rejects modern technological gadgets while being immersed in old-world technology. In his office hangs a Baroque ceiling painting of cherubs gathered around an armillary sphere. The first piece we witness up for sale at his auction house is a refracting, elongated telescope once belonging to Galileo, “still in perfect, working order.” He works on paper, not a computer screen. He refuses to own a mobile phone. But his high-tech living room senses his departure and turns out the lights. And here is a point of paradox, as he’s forced to endure the gimmicks that pass for the technology of today.
But I think this movie is providing more than just a hat-tip to the past. It seems to be a quiet, subtle admission that we’re living in a grand deception.
For his birthday, a chef in an elite restaurant creates for Virgil a Renaissance dessert from an “ancient” recipe of Schüsse cream and bitter almonds. He doesn’t eat it. The excuse he gives is superstition because his birthday isn’t until the following day, but the pain in his eyes suggests he refrains for another reason.
We think of the ancients as primitive and backwards, but in reality, that’s our world. That’s us. Oldman is a lone remnant of an ancient era — a self-described orphan, lost in our modern time period. But this isn’t just romantic poetry. It’s an idea meant to be taken literally. Oldman is outside our timeline.
The plot draws Virgil to a dilapidated mansion where he is to provide a valuation of its contents. What a perfect microcosmic summary of Mr. Oldman’s grand purpose. But the ruinous state of mansion is all an illusion. The mansion is, in actuality, abandoned and furniture has been placed there to convince Oldman of a false and very complex narrative, all a beautifully painted facade, from behind which a girl peers out at him through a hole… just one of many references to the occultified state of written history.
In the cellars, he finds a link to his beloved past, a broken set of ancient gears, part of a much larger system. He begins to collect these gears and his young tinkering friend, Robert, catalogues and reconstructs them. The gears turn out to be pieces of an automaton, a clockwork metal robot designed by Jacques de Vaucanson in the 1700s.
The rusted technology seems crude by our shiny standards, but Oldman reminds a skeptical Robert that Vaucanson’s robot was always right. His answers were correct. In stark contrast to such truth, Oldman’s own valuations are often falsified. In order to profit within this cut-throat world of art antiquities, he often finds it necessary to declare an original to be a forgery, enabling him to buy the piece at a steal.
Original art, of course, is always older than any forgery and, naturally, worth more. The modern day is only copying, badly, the greatness of the past. “The empire crumbles,” the mansion’s caretaker declares. This is the decayed reality of modernism, being surveyed, judged, and evaluated by Mr. Oldman. But Oldman has been lying to everyone, including those closest to him, about what is original and authentic, and what is not. Only he seems to know, and he’s hiding that information.
Virgil eventually falls in love with a very young and agoraphobic woman named Claire hiding inside the ruins of this mansion. He seeks advice on how to proceed from Robert, the tinker, and eventually allows Robert to watch from the shadows as Virgil and Claire have an otherwise private dinner. Robert stands behind a classical statue, an homage to Frollo’s sanctioned view of Phoebus and Esmeralda, though the male roles have been reversed. This time, it’s the old, eccentric Virgil seducing the young girl as the handsome young man looks on. But again, it’s all a deception. The handsome young man will win out in the end; they always do.
When Virgil realizes his relationship with Claire has been a lie, an elaborate trick, a forgery… he breaks down. It’s not just pain he’s experiencing. The elaborate deception is a lot to process. Some of this processing is done inside a life-sized armillary sphere in which he orbits his own navel, his own three-dimensional mese. The therapeutic sphere is normally used as an instrument for proprioceptive re-orientation. Oldman is trying to re-orient himself in space, but ends up moving further forward in time. Oh well, same thing.
The film ends near the astronomical clock in Prague. Virgil finds a cafe from Claire’s past called Night and Day in which to sit and further process his tragic predicament. The cafe is full of ticking clocks, oscillating pendula, revolving gears. It’s old world tech whispering something only an Oldman can hear. The clock above his head reads 2:12. But as we pan back toward the front of the cafe, the clock near the door reads 2:09. Oldman is out of time. He’s now living three minutes farther into a future he despises. Why the future? Because he can’t go back. If he could have, he would have long ago.