A stylish if ultimately silly attempt to marry erotic puzzler and art-world critique, The Best Offer benefits from assured performances and an agreeably nutty Ennio Morricone score. The movie plays as if director Giuseppe Tornatore (best known for Cinema Paradiso) is doing all he can with a dubious script. But he's the one who wrote it.
Save for brief moments in London and Prague, the story is set in an unidentified Italian city where everyone speaks English. That's where Virgil (Geoffrey Rush) has built a flawlessly appointed if lonely life as an art connoisseur and auctioneer.
He has a large (and secret) collection of portraits of Old World beauties, but has never spent the night with a flesh-and-blood woman. He's autocratic and self-controlled, yet flustered when he encounters a mysterious young heiress, the lovely Claire (Sylvia Hoeks). Anyone who doesn't realize Virgil is about to become an old fool should just notice his surname: Oldman.
At least Claire's surname is Ibbotson, not Youngfox.
The elusive Claire introduces herself to Virgil by telephone, then keeps making excuses as to why they can't meet in person. The aesthete begins appraising the objects in her late parents' apparently abandoned villa, gradually realizing that Claire actually lives there, in a hidden suite.
The young woman has agoraphobia, it turns out, which only adds to her allure. She's a princess trapped in a self-constructed tower, like a character co-written by Freud and the Brothers Grimm.
Virgil begins to spy on Claire, and begging to meet face to face. For romantic advice, he turns to Robert (Jim Sturgess), a mechanical genius who's also an expert womanizer. Robert is helping Virgil reconstruct a valuable 18th-century automaton from parts discovered in the villa's basement. The pieces fit together slowly yet all too easily, like the movie's mechanical scenario.
It doesn't occur to Virgil to be suspicious of any of his acquaintances, which is odd, since he's a veteran con man: With the help of a plant in the audience — a frustrated painter played by Donald Sutherland — Virgil has long manipulated auctions to surreptitiously acquire works for his private gallery. The painter's name? Billy Whistler.
Averse to human contact, Virgil always wears gloves, except to touch paintings. The question looms: Should Virgil ever meet Claire, would he touch her like a person, or like one of his prized canvases?
Rush is poised and appropriately theatrical as Virgil, whose quickness to anger is the only off note in his self-made aristocrat's disposition. Sutherland is engagingly sly, and Sturgess disarmingly easygoing, his character's cleverness disguised by a working-class accent. If Hoeks is less vivid, that suits her role as "a Durer etching" come to life. The Renaissance and Baroque arts and architecture in the film also play their parts well, conjuring an antiquarian demimonde where these characters might possibly exist.
At times, The Best Offer resembles something Nicolas Roeg might have filmed in the 1980s: sexual obsession and gamesmanship, elegant facades with rotting interiors and an eerie observer who sees all and remembers it, too. But Roeg would have revved up the action, cutting faster and rushing toward a more delirious conclusion.
Tornatore's movie does end with a jumpy array of flashbacks, flash-forwards and scene changes, while Virgil literally spins in place. The effect isn't especially trippy, though; the clockwork plot has already run down by then, and the only thing that retains its uncanniness is the warbling of Morricone's sopranos.