Last week’s sale of a Francis Bacon triptych at auction for $142.4 million is a troubling reminder of the role of art as status symbol. Coincidentally, two of the super-rich power-collectors in this 2009 film actually own a Bacon triptych, but it’s a painting they don’t own that the plot revolves around. Set in the contemporary London art scene, the film’s title refers to a work by Mondrian, said to be the first in the “Boogie-Woogie” series, and owned by aging collector Alfred Rhinegold (Sir Christopher Lee). He claims to have bought it from Mondrian personally for £500, and now his wife, Alfreda (Joanna Lumley), wants him to sell it. The subsequent back-and-forth volley of bids ultimately reaches $30 million, but they are all in vain.
Alfred refuses every offer, valuing his prized possession more than the considerable financial gains at stake. Confined to a wheelchair and requiring the assistance of an oxygen tank, he seems of another era, and is treated like an unreasonable, old kook. Alfred clings to the unquantifiable “sentimental” worth of the painting, while his wife and assistant buzz around him, negotiating with potential buyers.
One of the painting’s would-be suitors is Art Spindle (Danny Huston), whom is said to be “like the biggest art dealer in London.” He seems to have an ulterior motive behind every action. Seeing that his new assistant has skinned her knee, for example, he seizes this as an opportunity to rub ointment on it (and her inner thigh). Lecherous and power-hungry, he uses a barrage of chuckles in an attempt to camouflage his tactlessness with people.
Art is vying for the Mondrian on behalf of his unhappily married clients Jean and Bob Macleston (Gillian Anderson and). The Macelstons already own a formidable collection of works by artists such as Warhol, Judd, Beuys, Flavin and Brancusi (fussily pronounced by Bob as brɨŋˈkuʃ—the original Romanian enunciation). They also have two French Poodles, Picasso and Matisse, that get taken on walks by an aspiring curator named Dewey (Alan Cumming).
Dewey is the film’s most tragic character and, in a surprising move by the scriptwriters, he struggles much more than the artists in his circle. In a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Dewey notices his exhibition proposal in the wastebasket just minutes after handing it to Art Spindle. He is then abandoned by his best friend and artist colleague, Elaine (Jaime Winstone), who stops working with him when she finds a better offer. “This is the art world—this is how it works,” she insists.
Elaine is a video artist whose work is a documentation of: A) her mistreatment of her friends and their subsequent reactions, and B) her sexual encounters with her girlfriend or other people, including her dealer (Heather Graham). She is clearly trying as hard as possible to be an enfant terrible and she is constantly rewarded for it, but her final attention-getting stunt crosses every line imaginable.
The other artist in the story is Jo Richards (Jack Huston), who makes sculptures and installations. He does bicep curls while writing his artist statement and snorts a line of coke before studio visits. Jo makes contraptions he says are designed to examine “our observation of what’s around us.” But their actual purpose seems to be creating opportunities for him to feel up women from behind, while showing them how the devices work. This appears to work out well for him, and Jean Macleston falls for it majorly.
Given that the London art scene is such an apparent den of iniquity, it is not surprising when Jean and Bob file for divorce. A sagacious friend advises Jean to wise up on her end of the deal because “art is exceeding property prices two to one.” Cut to Bob’s lawyer reading him the list of what Jean wants: the Smith in the garden, the Hockney in the hallway, the Mapplethorpe photographs on the landing and the Bacon in the living room, to name a few. Jean hates the Brancusi, but wants it anyway because “it’s worth a fortune.”
For spite, Bob decides to preemptively sell all of the art so that Jean will only get the money in the settlement. The money, as Bob puts it, “doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.” If only that were true.