The setting is Paris in 1964. Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) has invited his friend, the American art writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), to pose for a portrait. Intrigued and flattered – Giacometti’s elongated sculptures and paintings had made him world famous – the subject agrees to sit for the master. Expecting to model for a few days, Lord found himself at the mercy of the notoriously self-critical artist for three weeks.
That’s the movie, a “mere” look at an artist at work in his chosen habitat. Giacometti’s Paris studio, beautifully captured by production designer James Merifield, is a mess of brushes, paints, plaster and unfinished art works; Lord can barely find a place to sit. And when he does, the chain-smoking bohemian mutters to himself as he paints over his canvass and starts again, and again, and again, never willing to say fini.
For the American visitor, it’s a maddening process – and audiences may feel similarly frustrated. But actor-turned-filmmaker Stanley Tucci, writing and directing his first movie in a decade, is after something most films about artists would never risk: a look at the process itself. As co-director of 1996’s masterful Big Night, Tucci traveled similar ground regarding the preparation of food. But in Final Portrait, art achieves a permanence that trumps an evanescent feast. What holds us through all the exasperating starts and stops is Rush, a live-wire actor of such effortless charisma that we’re drawn to his every utterance and gesture. Hammer, as a stand-in for the audience, can only stare in wonder as we do.
Tucci also makes room for key people in Giacometti’s orbit, including his designer brother Diego (a wry, witty Tony Shalhoub). Still, it’s the women in the artist’s life who make stronger impressions. As Annette, the model turned long-suffering wife, Sylvie Testud shows the strain of living with a perfectionist who flaunts his affair with the younger Caroline (the striking Clemence Poésy), a prostitute who now serves as his model and muse.
superb actor himself, Tucci knows how to bring out the subtleties of performance. And
Rush rewards him with a dynamism that humanizes what could have been just a chilly intellectual exercise. It’s hilarious to hear Giacometti rail against his
peers, insulting Chagall’s ceiling for the Paris Opera as “fucking house
painting.” With his own unfinished art pieces,
he can alternate between being a father gently stroking a child or an Old
Testament God raining down his destructive wrath. Final Portrait makes it clear that art
is of the essence and not ego – a distinction that makes this a most mesmerizing meditation on the mystery of genius.