What makes a movie great (or not), pt. 1 *

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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(* This post will discuss important plot points of all the movies mentioned, so if you haven’t seen any of these, you should perhaps refrain from reading any further).

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The last few months I have seen a number of movies that all prompted the same question: What does really make a movie great? Two of these I saw in a movie theater (La migliore offerta by Giuseppe Tornatore and Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen) and one on the network’s rental service (Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby). They were all unquestionably made by more than able directors, well acted (some of them excellently even), had high production values and intriguing stories. Yet in each case, I felt that the result did not work, that something was missing or off. I am still wondering about them, especially since these movies elicited enthusiastic responses by critics and/or friends that saw them (and whose opinions I value greatly). So, what went wrong?

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la migliore offerta

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La migliore offerta, Giuseppe Tornatore (2013)

If a movie has an art collector, an art heist, significant scenes taking place in a museum etc., I’m compelled to see it. So, a movie about an eccentric art auctioneer portrayed by the superb Geoffrey Rush, and directed by Tornatore (of the beloved Cinema Paradiso) was naturally a must-see.

The movie started promisingly, depicting the main character (Virgil Oldman) in all his eccentricities, bordering on psychological disorders: an obsession with order and cleanliness and an aversion to human contact (his gloves are the obvious sign of his aloofness). The movie quickly establishes Virgil as a star in the world where he moves in, an undisputed and much sought after authority, when it comes to assessing the artistic importance and price of artworks in the possession of old aristocratic families with decayed estates. The viewer is also made privy of the scheme that Virgil has been running on the side of his legal art appraising activities: his long-time friend (of sorts) and partner (Donald Sutherland) bids secretly on behalf of Virgil and buys over the years a series of female portraits, that are introduced in the auctions with deceptively low prices or purposely wrong attributions by Virgil himself. Virgil keeps this gallery of women in a secret strong room, and the director uses this crude symbolism to indicate his distant (or non-existent) relationship with the other sex.

The scheme itself is problematic, since the idea that this activity could go undetected for so long, strains credulity and if anyone knows anything about the machinations of the art world it is difficult to imagine that Virgil’s word would be considered law and go undisputed by the collectors and other auctioneers he inevitably comes into contact with. I was also annoyed by the presence in Virgil’s personal collection of several well known paintings that have belonged to museums for decades. It functions as a wink to the knowing public, but the implication that all this art could be experienced only by the silent viewer peeping, so to speak, over Virgil’s shoulder was somehow disturbing.

The story kicks in when Virgil receives a telephone call from a distressed young woman who apparently wants to sell her family’s collection. Truth be said, Sylvia Hoeks’ voice and diction (the actress portraying the mysterious Claire) distracted me to the utmost. I found them bad, as if she was reciting her lines for a school theatre production, and that put me off from the start. It was difficult to understand why Virgil would believe her, let alone bother to show up for their meeting, or continue to be dragged along, when she failed to show up the first time.

Tornatore not only directed but also wrote the movie, and he seems to have been unable to decide whether he wanted this to be a mystery/romance/art heist movie, or an existential story about personality and love, directed as a thriller. Blending genres seems more like an accident in this case, than an effective overcoming of genre prescriptions. This results, among others, in the introduction of a redundant subplot, concerning Virgil’s obsession with an eighteenth-century French engineer, Jacques de Vaucanson, famous as an inventor of automatons. Virgil starts finding small parts of what appears to be an authentic Vaucanson automaton (none survives) scattered in Claire’s mansion, and supposedly this motivates him to keep coming back. This leads to another redundant part, Jim Sturgess’ character (Robert), who is proficient both in technology and the fair sex. Straining credulity even further, the director/writer has Virgil confide in Robert, leaning on him for the reconstruction of the machine and for romantic advice. I found Robert a useless narrative device – and utterly implausible as a confidant and a ladies’ charmer. That a grown man such as Virgil would open himself up to what appears a relative stranger at the beginning of the movie further chips away the main character’s coherence.

The movie is more believable when it centers on the relationship between Virgil and Claire. Claire is soon revealed to be suffering from severe agoraphobia and has not left her house in years (and when others are present in it, she confines herself in a series of secret rooms, a fitting parallel to Virgil’s hidden depictions of women). It is not difficult to understand why a man with an aversion to touch and human contact would be intrigued by such an occurrence, and attracted by the mysterious and unattainable stranger. Virgil soon becomes obsessed with Claire and even hides inside the house just to catch a glimpse of her when, believing herself to be alone, she leaves her hiding place. Again, the fact that Virgil needs advice from Robert on how to court the girl is jarring.

When Claire is finally drawn out, the age difference between her and Virgil could constitute a further problem, but the charisma of Geoffrey Rush and his vulnerability as the main character effectively blur it. Which is why the final resolution of the movie is so profoundly disappointing. The fact that one suspects midway through that Virgil is being played (although to what purpose is not made clear before the very end) also takes away a significant part of the story’s resonance as one man’s tortured path towards – and away – from love. So that was all there was? An elaborate scheme, perpetrated by his friend and partner (Donald Sutherland), who used his own daughter to seduce Virgil out of his precious collection? The crudeness and superficiality of the movie’s symbolism is embodied in the penultimate scene, when Virgil sits in his empty secret room, with the Vaucanson automaton fully reconstructed. It is, just as himself, a hollow man with no soul, operated by a hidden mechanism, just as Virgil was played by his friends and lover. Insinuating that Claire had truly fallen for him, repenting the trick she was going to play on him (as in the scene where the tearful girl is let in Virgil’s sanctuary) further cheapens the movie’s impact.

What is the point? Virgil’s heart is toyed with and broken so that the director can prove that he can fool the viewer, play him as Virgil is played? It is an alarming tendency in recent cinema, this “all is not what it seems” final revelation that disrespects plot and characters alike, aiming to impress the viewer by pointing out all the little details he missed on the way. Meaningless revenge seems the point of all the elaborate construction behind Tornatore’s movie and the Vaucanson automaton unintentionally becomes an effective allegory for the movie itself: It is empty, without a soul, and operated by a trickster inside. Only this time the guy playing the trick is the movie’s director.

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