Horrible spoilers and plot dissection below.
This movie reminded me strongly of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s a character study of a man descending into obsession and madness due to the manipulation of others. It’s about a glacial, intricately-constructed revenge plot. It’s also about art, and forgeries, and demonstrates that even if the artwork is a forgery, it can still have the power of art – to affect the viewer.
Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is one of the world’s top art auctioneers, a profession I know very little of, but this rich world is beautifully evoked with sumptuous sets, artworks, and fine dining in restaurants. Everything in Virgil’s life is controlled. He wears gloves because he doesn’t like touching anything other than art. He dyes his hair. Everything is precise. Virgil also regularly commits fraud to buff up his own collection of beautiful portraits of young women. He’ll knowingly mis-identify pieces at an auction and then get his friend Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland) to bid for him. Then he’ll pay Billy in cash for the piece and store the painting in a gallery in his apartment, hidden behind a secret wall and secured with an electronic lock. Billy and Virgil appear to be friends, but Virgil is always dismissive of Billy’s paintings, and refuses to even look at his most recent works.
Virgil is asked by a mysterious woman to value her parent’s artworks, in a crumbling old villa. She never meets him in person, and only talks in a shaky voice over the telephone. Virgil learns that the woman, Claire, is an agoraphobe trapped in parent’s house, desperate to sell her artworks to prop up her faltering income.
As they continually meet to discuss the sale, Virgil finds amid the junk in the house, parts of an old clockwork device. He takes these pieces to his only other friend, a young, womanising machinist called Robert. Robert and Virgil are sure that the clockwork are part of a Victorian automaton, and that the entire automaton could be reconstructed if enough of the parts are discovered. Slowly, Virgil finds out more about Claire, even spying on her. Claire is suspicious and unstable, but also hauntingly beautiful. She encourages Virgil to stop dying his hair, to be more genuine.
The middle act of the movie follows Virgil’s obsession with Claire. Each time he meets her, he becomes more involved, more obsessed. The viewer’s attention is drawn to a portrait of Claire’s mother, as a young ballerina. Virgil finds more of the pieces of the automaton that Robert gradually reconstructs. Amidst these ongoing developments, there are discussions of love and forgeries. Billy is adamant that everything can be faked, even love, but Robert says that each forgery contains something of the artist, and is built around a seed of genuine emotion.
During the last act of the film, Claire finally leaves her house when Virgil is beaten up by a gang of ruffians. She escorts him to hospital, and then, Virgil finally persuades him to move in with her. Her agoraphobia is conquered. Virgil is finally happy; he’s in love. He has a dinner at one of his expensive restaurants (previously, he always dined alone) with Robert, Claire and Robert’s girlfriend, calling them all ‘his family.’
In most tragedies, there’s a place where the narrative could just stop, where it looks like it will be a happily-ever-after ending for all involved. This was that point in the movie.
In the final act of the film. Virgil announces his retirement; he’s going to spend the rest of his life with Claire and his paintings. He even shows Claire his secret gallery, where she can easily see the password to the secure area. Virgil goes to London to do one last auction and then returns to his house – finding Claire and all of his paintings are gone, except for a single painting of a ballerina. There’s a message from Billy on the back; it was Billy’s painting all along.
At a single stroke, Billy is revealed to have masterminded Virgil’s relationship with Claire and used her to steal Virgil’s collection. Virgil is unable to go to the police, given the duplicitous measures that he acquired most of his paintings with. Billy’s friendship was a forgery. His hatred of Virgil was couched in a few significant exchanges where Virgil refused to accept Billy’s art as ‘art’. The enormity of the scam, where Virgil’s relationship with Claire was manipulated and constructed piece by piece, like the automaton, was art in itself; genuine from Virgil’s perspective, but an elaborate forgery from Billy, Claire and Robert.
While this betrayal seems inevitable, even obvious, the film does an excellent job of distracting the viewer by focusing purely on Virgil’s internal world. If anything, Robert appears a more suspicious mastermind than Billy, who seems to be showing genuine friendship to Virgil.
There are two points in the movie where both Billy’s and Robert’s friendships with Virgil is strained, almost tested, where the forgery is exposed. In one auction, Billy is too slow to bid for a piece that Virgil was after, and it gets bought by another bidder. Virgil is livid, calling Billy ‘too old’ and ending their bidding relationship. Later in the film, Billy apologises by personally buying the artwork that Virgil missed out on. Virgil forgives him and Billy promises to send him one of his painting, one that is genuine art. There’s a similar scene where one of Robert’s girlfriends warns Virgil that there’s something fishy about Robert and that he keeps talking about Claire. Virgil ends their relationship and takes the automaton back, but later forgives Robert and asks him to continue the work.
Virgil’s strongest relationships appear to be with the things he can buy – he buys female portraits, and has a strong, emotional relationship with them. He has a business relationship both with Billy and Robert, but is always telling them personal information, blurring the boundaries, as if his cash will guarantee their friendship as well as their loyalties and services. This outpouring of personal information to Billy would have certainly laid the bones for the scam. Virgil also regularly bribes Claire’s groundkeeper to get the old man to open up to him. And finally, Virgil also pours money into his relationship with Claire – by buying her make-up, clothing, and then finally an engagement ring. By Virgil’s internal logic, his relationship with Claire is genuine.
But everything was forged, except for Virgil’s emotions.
At the end of the movie, Virgil is withdrawn and in a nursing home; he’s lost everything and unable to move on, betrayed by an art he thought was genuine.