Artistic biopic revels in surface details
Final Portrait (2018)
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Cast: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush
Artists are far better subjects for biopics than writers for the simple reason that they actually do something visual. That doesn’t mean every artist who picks up a paintbrush or bangs on some clay is ripe for the treatment. But a stereotypical artist—what with the equal eye for beauty and pain and the manic-depressive mood swings—does make for a compelling cinematic subject. Final Portrait is little more than a brief, surface-level sketch drawn from the life of Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Based on the book A Giacometti Portrait by American author James Lord, the film limns a scant two-week period late in the artist’s life—but captures the artistic temperament better than many more expansive biopics.
James Lord (Armie Hammer, increasing his indie film street cred after Call Me By Your Name) is an American author and art critic bumming his way around Paris in a suit and tie (it’s 1964, after all). One day, he wanders down a brick alleyway and into the crumbling, clay-spattered studio of Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush, adding to his list of famous faces, which includes Albert Einstein, Sir Francis Walsingham, Peter Sellers, Leon Trotsky and the Marquis de Sade). Famed for his lumpy, elongated human figures, Giacometti is something of a hallmark mid-century artist. Casually, Giacometti mentions that he might like to paint a portrait of Lord. Not opposed to a little flattery, Lord agrees. Giacometti assures him it will take no more than “a couple hours, an afternoon at the most.”
But as the artist chain-smokes, swears at the canvas, struggles with his elusive muse and is distracted by both wife (Sylvie Testud) and mistress (Clémence Poésy), the model’s work stretches from hours to days to weeks.
Rush’s Giacometti is a charming old crank, shuffling around his studio, flitting from one unfinished creation to the next and taking frequent breaks of wine or food or jaunts in his mistress’ convertible. Giacometti’s brother Diego (Tony Shaloub) is a craftsman in the studio and provides some of the most down-to-earth advice about the man. Frustrated by the endless distractions and itching to return home, Lord considers ditching out. But something keeps him glued to the chair, unmoving. Is it his need to understand the artist? Is it his desire to become part of art history? Or is he searching for a deeper connection to the man himself?
To call Final Portrait a “biopic” is to oversell it a bit. The good-natured, almost offhanded film gives us little background on Giacometti and offers scant information on Lord. It’s not meant to illuminate the life story of either man. Instead, it’s a portrait in miniature. Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is to look behind the camera at the film’s writer-director, noted actor Stanley Tucci. Some 20-odd years ago, he whipped up a delicate little soufflé called Big Night, which didn’t so much capture the scope and breadth of 1950s-era fine dining as offer an evocative glimpse into the mind of one uncompromisingly creative chef. Final Portrait does largely the same thing.
There’s very little internal drama going on here, and there’s a creeping feeling that Tucci is stretching Lord’s narrow accounting just to make 90 minutes. And yet … it’s hard not to feel like Lord, sitting in that chair, growing ever more restless, desperate for something to happen, but unable to get up and leave. The insights gained are small but significant. Giacometti’s obsessive, stumbling attempts to capture his friend in paint and canvas are emblematic of art in general. “A portrait is never actually finished,” says Giacometti, warning himself as much as his subject.
Rather than aggrandize his subject, Tucci continually reduces him. A self-critical artist who annihilates his professional life with his quest for perfection, a venal man who screws up his personal life by relying on his wife and muse but openly taking a prostitute as his mistress, Alberto Giacometti is a mass of insecurities and contradictions—and yet somehow these flaws give life to his fussy, existential works. Kudos to Rush who imbues Giacometti with a chaotic and humorous mix of manic exuberance and depressive enervation. In the final tally, Final Portrait is a microcosmic chamber drama, an old-fashioned two-hander in which two characters meet, interact and part company. It rarely dips below the surface, but—like a great many works of art—it’s a fascinating surface, nonetheless.