It’s hard to resist a movie about an artist. Writers mostly toil away in solitude in non-dramatic ways. But a visual artist is a more dynamic subject, raging away in the grip of the muse—at least, in the movies—while the results of that stormy dialogue appear right there on the canvas, or sculpture, for all to see. Actors can’t wait to make a meal of those roles, and filmmakers are eager to enable them, recreating those exotic, Bohemian environments in which artists are spawned.
All of which brings us to Final Portrait, a fleet, cinematic sketch about the trials of sitting for a portrait by the notoriously eccentric Alberto Giacometti. Geoffrey Rush cheerfully chows down on the role of Giacometti, and he’s great fun to watch, under the benevolent guidance of director Stanley Tucci. An actor himself, Tucci knows how to set off a performance, recreating in meticulous detail not only the (dis)organized chaos of the artist’s home work studio, but the streets and cafes of Paris, circa 1964, in which this factual story takes place.
Based on the memoir by James Lord (who also co-wrote the script with Tucci), the story revolves around James (Armie Hammer), a button-down young American writer spending time in Paris reporting on the cultural scene for the New Yorker magazine. James has become friends with the artist, and even though Giacometti is best known for his elongated, expressionistic sculptures in clay, he surprises his young friend by asking him to sit for a painted portrait.
Flattered, James agrees, even though he’s booked on a return flight home to the States in just a few days. “Two or three days, at the most,” Alberto assures him. Then the actual process begins. Besides Alberto’s daily expletive-peppered battles with his muse over the canvas, the work is frequently interrupted by lengthy rambles around the nearby cafes or to a local cemetery, or impromptu visits from Alberto’s mistress, Caroline (Clemence Poésy), a vivacious young prostitute from the neighborhood.
The sitting stretches out over days, then weeks. James has to keep rescheduling his flight home, but he sticks with it—despite Alberto’s frequent declarations that the work is shit, the portrait will never be finished, and that he himself is a fraud. The only payoff for James, as he continues to play the patient observer, is a ringside seat into the messy creative process.
Is this enough for the viewer? Mostly, yes, despite moments when we share James’ ennui a bit too acutely. As random as the insights often are, they can be occasionally precise, as when James complains to Alberto’s loyal brother/assistant, Diego (the ingratiating Tony Shalhoub), that Alberto seems “determined to remain completely unfulfilled.” Not “completely,” Diego corrects him gently. “Perfectly.”
Meanwhile, director Tucci replicates Giacometti’s Paris live/work space with vigorous authenticity. Behind a gate off a cobbled street, two buildings face each other across a narrow alley, one containing a bedroom (and not much else) for Alberto and his wife, Annette (a lovely performance of grit and affection by Sylvie Testud), and an upstairs apartment for Diego. The other is Alberto’s studio, every surface crowded with his haunted, emaciated sculptures in all sizes and stages of progress, among the easels, stools, benches, buckets, blocks of clay, canvas boards, paints and brushes, and who knows what else, all covered with a film of clay dust.
Also interesting, perhaps as a kind of homage to its subject, Tucci and cinematographer Danny Cohen choose to shoot the whole movie in subtle clay colors of beige, grey and ocher—giving everything a vintage look and feel.
Rush has a high old time as the chain-smoking, irascible Alberto in his twilight years, rampaging around his studio in a last burst of creative energy. (He would live only two more years after painting the Lord portrait.) Final Portrait may not plunge you into the miracle of artistic expression—go see an Andy Goldsworthy movie for that—but it offers a lively glimpse at the process from the outside looking in.
*** (out of four)
With Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer. Written by James Lord (from his memoir, A Giacometti Portrait) and Stanley Tucci. Directed by Stanley Tucci. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 90 minutes.