The Last Vermeer (Friedkin, 2020)

Like its protagonists, Han Van Meegeren and Joseph Piller, The Last Vermeer is unassuming. Its subject — the looting of European art by the Nazis — was covered more dramatically in Monuments Men and Woman in Gold. Add to that the fact that Van Meegeren was a historical figure, and the outcome of its mystery will be known to many of the viewers from the outset.

Was Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) a collaborator who helped Nazis plunder Dutch cultural treasures, or was he a subversive forger who tricked them into overspending for clever forgeries while keeping the original treasures safe? The film takes a long time to get around to asking that question since the first thirty minutes or follows Piller (Claes Bang) tracking down war criminals and puzzling over the eccentric artist’s cavalier demeanor after seemingly being called to account for his national betrayal.

In many ways, the film is a structural copy of Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune. There is a cryptic, amoral protagonist accused of a horrible crime, an idealistic lawyer convinced of his innocence, and a strange tension between bourgeois American idealism and aloof aristocratic pragmatism.

I liked The Last Vermeer, albeit marginally. Most who do will probably focus their praise on Pearce who perfectly nails that aloof European quality one normally associates with royalty or the uber-rich. It would not surprise me if he, like Jeremy Irons in Reversal, generates serious awards consideration. Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1990 for playing Von Bulow.

What I found more interesting about the film was the way it showed how forgers and conmen prey on the certainty of experts. We are all more certain than we ought to be about the impossibility of our preconceptions being wrong. Earlier this summer, I reviewed the documentary Driven to Abstraction. That film showed art critics and experts dead certain — and dead wrong — that abstract expressionist paintings could not be forged because of their unique style. Here we see jurors and experts alike convinced that Vermeer absolutely could not be forged because….of his unique style.

There’s a larger point to be made here about when we should and should not depend on experts. On the one hand, we sometimes need help understanding subjects beyond our knowledge. On the other hand, we make ourselves vulnerable if we never stop to consider that experts become dogmatic after they have made a pronouncement because they must protect their professional reputations.

I don’t see The Last Vermeer driving a lot of people in the middle of a pandemic to the movie theaters, but for those starved for new content, it plays well enough on the small screen to order on demand.

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