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Last Vermeer, The
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by alejandroariera

"F for Fake, or taking the mickey out of a true story"
3 stars

Days after watching producer Dan Friedkin’s directorial debut, “The Last Vermeer,” it dawned on me that there were some superficial similarities between this post World War II thriller and courtroom drama hybrid and “F for Fake,” Orson Welles’ splendid personal essay about fakes, forgeries, filmmaking and the art of illusion, particularly in its critique of how art is valued and by whom. Now, I AM giving “The Last Vermeer” far more credit than it deserves, but the film is at its best whenever one of its two leads, the legendary Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren, is on screen pontificating about art. Like Hungarian painter and forger Elmyr De Houry, one of Welles’ many subjects, van Meegeren, at least as portrayed by Guy Pearce, is a flamboyant, charming bon vivant who is sticking a middle finger at art critics and collectors and museum curators alike. Van Meegeren is, in Clifford Irving’s words when describing De Houry (and as recited by Welles in “F for Fake”) “a man of talent taking the mickey out of those who had rejected him, translating disappointment into a giant joke.” (It takes one to know one: Irving, after all, published a fake biography of Howard Hughes in the early 70s.) Welles’ questions also hang over “The Last Vermeer” as well: “Is it art? Well, how is it valued? The value depends upon opinion, opinion depends on the experts, and fakers like Elmyr makes fools of the experts…” Too bad that the script by James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby doesn’t trust its source material, “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” Jonathan Lopez’s biography of van Meegeren and an investigation of the network of illicit commerce that made his forgeries possible. I suspect Lopez digs deeper into some of these ideas explored by Welles and that a more faithful adaptation of the book would have made for a better, more ambitious film.

Originally titled “Lyrebird” when it premiered last year at Telluride, “The Last Vermeer” opens with the discovery of Herman Göring’s art collection inside a train wagon underneath an Austrian salt mine three weeks after the fall of the Third Reich. Among the pieces, a rare painting by Dutch painter Johaness Vermeer: “Christ and the Adulteress.” Much is made of the fact that Vermeer only left 34 paintings behind when he died and that Göring paid the largest sum of money for any art work at the time for this one painting. Allied officer and former Resistance fighter Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, who early this year starred in the similarly-themed “The Burnt Orange Heresy”)nhas been tasked with tracking the original Jewish owners of the many art pieces seized by the Nazis. His investigation leads him to van Meegeren as the dealer who secured the painting for Göring, who proclaims his innocence even though all the evidence gathered proves the contrary. At the same time, Piller is trying to keep the Ministry of Justice’s hangmen at arms-length, including one Alex De Klerks, played by August Diehl (“A Quiet Place”) in full “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-Nazi-about-to-have-his-face-melted regalia, glasses and black hat included.

Suspecting that there’s more than meets the eye here, Piller takes van Meegeren to his headquarters attic and provides him with paints, a canvass and, eventually, van Meegeren’s private stash of whiskey as his investigation continues. Along the way, Piller uncovers some uncomfortable truths, including the role his wife played in the Resistance and van Meegeren’s own sympathies with the Powers that Be. Once the Allies leave The Netherlands, Piller is sacked from his job and van Meegeren charged with collaborating with the Nazis. Minna, Piller’s former assistant (an underused Vicky Krieps) hasn’t given up on the case and after discovering evidence that van Meegeren sold Göring a fake painting, convinces Piller to seek the assistance of an old lawyer to prove that, in swindling Göring and for that matter his Nazi acquaintances, Van Meegeren is innocent.

The film comes alive in this second half as it hews close to the conventions of a courtroom drama while using those same conventions to explore questions about art, its reception by the public and experts and who makes the call in declaring it Art with capital “A”. If Pearce was having a blast in the film’s first half playing up his character’s more outrageous qualities, in these scenes he hints at van Meegeren’s essence as a scorned artist who not only mocked the powers that be with his Vermeer fakes but also as a con artist who lost his moral compass on the road to fame, fortune and recognition.

The film’s construction is a tad unwieldy as it tries to find the right balance between the conventional, the intellectual and the personal. Friedkin, McGee, Fergus and Ostby also raise questions about the moral conundrums faced by those who fought an enemy in a country that quietly, and complacently, collaborated with that very same enemy, and the compromises madein that struggle, as well as what happens afterwards. Women are pushed to the side in this mostly male world; they are merely stand-ins for some of these ideas (In the case of Piller’s wife) or serve a more functional, conventional role (in Minna’s case who is as much love interest as trusty assistant). The film is sumptuous thanks to Remi Adefarasin’s Vermeer-inspired photography and Arthur Max’s exquisite production design. But “The Last Vermeer” bites more than it can chew.

That’s not to say “The Last Vermeer” is not entertaining. It is and that’s thanks to Pearce’s performance, a comedic turn by Rolland Moller as Piller’s assistant and muscle, and the courtroom drama. But “The Last Vermeer” is also a throwback to the kind of prestige, europudding brand of cinema that used to play at indie houses during Awards season or as counterprogramming to the summer’s blockbusters prior to this pandemic. Now it stands as a lifeline for those movie theaters still open nationwide that are trying to fill their houses with whatever is available until this health crisis is over.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33752&reviewer=434
originally posted: 11/18/20 15:11:10
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  DVD: 23-Feb-2021


  DVD: 23-Feb-2021

Directed by
  Dan Friedkin

Written by
  James McGee
  Mark Fergus
  Hawk Ostby

  August Diehl
  Vicky Krieps
  Guy Pearce
  Olivia Grant
  Richard Dillane
  Claes Bang

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