i saw final portrait on saturday morning at nine-thirty. as you would expect the cinema was empty (actually empty!) and to honest i wasn’t sure i was there either. it was a last minute booking because there weren’t many films to see, so i saw this little gem instead. i didn’t know much about alberto giacometti before i saw final portrait but when i came out of the cinema i thought to myself, what an amazing person. this is a beautifully made film which everyone has to see whether you like arthouse films or not.
this is stanley tucci’s fifth film as a director/writer but the first when he wasn’t actually in front of the camera as well. i don’t want to be rude, but i wouldn’t change a thing with this film so thank god. starring geoffrey rush as the eccentric swiss-italian artist and armie hammer as art-critic james lord, the chemistry between these two actors is the best since hugh jackman and dafne keen in logan.
Giacometti’s original plan was for a “quick sketch” that would take “an afternoon at most”. But, in practice, the project wore on for the best part of a month, as he endlessly reworked the face on the canvas. In the film, it’s as if both men become locked together in a bleakly funny existential farce: a dilapidated Didi and a debonair Gogo, waiting endlessly for Godot in the form of a finishing brushstroke. Giacometti and Samuel Beckett were firm friends in real life – and though the Irish playwright doesn’t appear in Tucci’s film, you can sense his spirit lingering just out of shot, as absurdity sets in like rising damp.
Satisfaction is not something that comes naturally to Giacometti. One sticking point is his fatalistic conviction that he will never be able to paint Lord as he sees him: another is that the rise of photography has rendered the whole process pointless in the first place. Tucci introduces the artist with a drily amusing anticlimax: Lord strolls through the vibrant streets of Paris to picturesque accordion music, only for the melody and vitality to snap off the moment he enters the artist’s abode, where Giacometti is gloomily fussing with various unfinished, and possibly unfinishable, sculptures and effigies. The cinematographer is Danny Cohen, who with this, The King’s Speech (2010) and is evidently the go-to guy when you need to shoot the same two faces and four walls in a hundred different ways and make it beautiful each time.
Rush hurls himself into the film’s star turn with a cantankerous abandon that more than compensates for his slightly unsteady accent. It’s a wildly entertaining performance that feels vividly inhabited both physically and vocally – his glances and gestures at the canvas are all keenly observed, and he doesn’t resort to bad language so much as rev it, like the engine of a vintage touring car he’s been fondly tinkering with for months.
As the painting progresses – or rather doesn’t – various Giacometti associates blow in and out of the frame, creating the very specific microclimate in which the artist’s work can spore and sprout. Tony Shalhoub plays the artist’s brother, assistant and sometime model Diego with a twinkling lightness of spirit that elegantly cuts through the curmudgeonly pall, while Sylvie Testud is Giacometti’s wife Annette, and Clémence Poésy his muse, a high-spirited prostitute called Caroline.
The storyline barely spans 18 days, but a sparkling appreciation of Giacometti’s life, philosophy and process coheres from its deftly sketched lines. It’s what you almost never get from conventional cradle-to-grave biopics, most of which suffer from an unhealthy preoccupation with reducing a life to biographical bullet points.
Final Portrait elegantly dodges the ‘life plus trauma plus easel equals art’ trap by looking at French painter Alberto Giacometti (Rush) through specs that are anything but rose-tinted, and by focusing on the creation of one painting, the actual content of which is incidental. Instead, Stanley Tucci — here directing for the fifth time — brings an actor’s understanding of creative insecurity to this biopic, Giacometti constantly disparaging his own talent, wiping out days’ worth of work to start again and burning his old drawings.
Tucci’s film, thank goodness, doesn’t concern itself with broad strokes or bigger pictures. It’s a delightful, nimble miniature, as thought-provoking in the long term as it is wryly entertaining in the moment. His direction elsewhere, mostly constrained to an amazingly detailed recreation of Giacometti’s studio, is as alert to performance as you’d expect. Essentially an extended two-hander, this manages to feel at once theatrical in its unhurried contentment to just let two strong actors bounce off each other, but also cinematic in Tucci and DP Danny Cohen’s elegant camerawork — a pretty rare combo. The net result is a mature and wise drama about the cost and benefits of creativity. Tucci should spend more time behind the camera.