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Art of the Con

In films such as the new 'Thomas Crown Affair,' masterpieces are paintings that photograph well, and that usually means reproductions to order. Meet the master.

August 01, 1999|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco writes regularly about arts and entertainment for Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — At the start of "The Thomas Crown Affair" an elementary schoolteacher is lecturing her class in front of a painting by Claude Monet at a museum not unlike New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing that the students are bored and listless, the teacher takes a new tack.

"OK, try this," she tells them. "It's worth a hundred million bucks!"

That gets their attention--as it does that of Pierce Brosnan's Thomas Crown, a wealthy, high-flying financier who, for sport and his own aesthetic enjoyment, steals a couple of Impressionist and Surrealist masterpieces, all the while romancing an insurance investigator (Rene Russo) whose company would rather not cover the museum's losses.

The tony context of high art is just one of the changes in this remake of the 1968 film, which starred Steve McQueen as a brainy bank robber and Faye Dunaway (here in a cameo as Crown's shrink) as the insurance investigator. But in reality the paintings, including that precious "San Giorgio Maggiore Soleil Couchant" by Monet that he folds into his briefcase (which should cause more than a few purists to wince), are worth little more than the pigment only recently applied to the canvases.

"I sell fantasy, what is that worth?" asked Christopher Warner Moore, president of the Paris- and New York-based Troubetzkoy Gallery, which reproduced the majority of the more than 200 actual masterpieces used in scenes of the museum's galleries and in Crown's townhouse, with its sleek interiors reflecting the tastes of a sophisticated art collector. "This is supposed to be the Met," Moore says about the film's key setting, "but for me it's an imaginary museum and an imaginary collection."

The imaginary museum and collections became necessary when the request of director John McTiernan to film scenes of the "Thomas Crown" remake at the Met was turned down. (The MGM film, with a reported budget of $55 million, opens Friday.) Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the museum, said the request was "respectfully declined" because the elaborate heists in the script portrayed security measures and breeches that had nothing to do with what goes on--or could go on--at the Met.

"It's not that we're censoring freedom of expression, but if we had allowed filming, it would almost appear as if we were endorsing their view of security," he said, adding that the museum receives about two dozen requests a year for filming and generally approves about five or six.

Leslie Rollins, set decorator for the film, said that the decision gave him and production designer Bruno Rubeo free rein to create their own museum--whatever the viewer might infer from scenes showing exteriors of the Met itself. And when it came to showing on camera works by such masters as Monet, Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso, John Singer Sargent and Vincent Van Gogh, they were aware that only a textured, layered application of vibrantly colored pigment on canvas would yield satisfactory results. Flat or computer-generated images simply wouldn't work.

"The adult moviegoing public is quite sophisticated and expects nothing less than an accurate, realistic picture of life," Rollins said. "We have to keep notching up what we do so we're presenting something fresh and absolutely researched."

To fill the galleries as well as the Crown townhouse, Rubeo and Rollins tapped a number of sources, including Moore and his battalion of painters, who work out of a Paris atelier. The firm, established in 1978 by the French-born Russian aristocrat Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, began replicating classical and modern masterpieces for luxury hotels and private clients. The latter included those who may have possessed the originals and wanted copies for the beach house, as well as others who desired the patina of elegance and sophistication conferred on the owner of such paintings but not the exorbitant price tag.

In 1991, the gallery, then run by the founder's son, Arnaud Marie Troubetzkoy, and Moore--who had been in school together in Europe--expanded into film. At the recommendation of a consultant to the Met, Dante Ferretti, art director of "The Age of Innocence," commissioned them to come up with more than 200 paintings for director Martin Scorsese's lavish look at the lifestyle of American aristocrats at the turn of century.

The gallery has since provided replicas of important paintings for nearly 50 film and TV productions, including "Meet Joe Black" and "The American President," and such upcoming films as "Mickey Blue Eyes," "Bowfinger" and "Girl Interrupted." Indeed, the latter, starring Winona Ryder, even takes its title from a Jan Vermeer painting.

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To Moore, "The Thomas Crown Affair" was a particularly appealing project because it featured a number of what he calls "hero" paintings--those that significantly figure in the plot and cannot be slighted or cut from the film. After all, the paintings represent more than just quarry to the art-loving thief.

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