FINAL PORTRAIT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Stanley Tucci

Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Tony Shalhoub, Clemence Poesy, Sylvie Testud, James Faulkner.

In 1966, renowned portrait artist and sculptor Alberto Giacometti passed away soon after completing his final painting. In 1964 he had painted a portrait of American journalist and art lover James Lord, who had come to Paris for a brief visit. The portrait was only supposed to take a couple of days, but the increasingly frustrated Lord spent a couple of weeks with the mercurial artist in his Paris studio. Giacometti was often dissatisfied with his early efforts and would start over again, thus drawing out the process. Lord was forced to cancel flights and reschedule other appointments and work around Giacometti’s erratic work habits.

Often films about artists depict them as tortured and self-destructive creative people, and Final Portrait is no exception. This is something of a passion project for writer/director Stanley Tucci who has been nurturing the film since he first conceived of it a decade ago. This is his first feature film as director since Blind Date, a decade ago, but thematically it shares more in common with his Joe Gould’s Secret, from 2000.

This modest little film is based on Lord’s 1964 biography A Giacometti Portrait, in which he detailed the 18 days spent in the artist’s company while sitting for the portrait, but also draws upon his more detailed biography published in 1985. This is the portrait of an unusual friendship, but it is also an exploration of the creative process and artistic temperament. It is also a lot of fun, and quite amusing at times due to Giacometti’s eccentricities. Tucci brings an unhurried style to the material, and its meandering, laid back nature is part of the charm. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, etc) bathes the interiors in a grey palette, giving the film the aesthetic of Parisian street photography of the era. The film was actually shot in London due to budgetary constraints, and CGI was used to make the streetscapes resemble Paris of the era.

Most of the action is confined to Giacometti’s studio, but there are little detours to a nearby café and a cemetery. Kudos go to production designer James Merifield (Mortdecai, etc), who has recreated Giacometti’s decrepit, cramped and dusty Montparnasse workshop. Liz Bracey’s costume design is also very good, creating a nice visual contrast between Giacometti’s baggy, dishevelled clothes and the neat elegant clothes worn by Lord.

Final Portrait is a chamber piece, essentially a two-hander driven by the performances of Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer, and one could almost imagine this working on the stage. Rush adds yet another wonderful real life eccentric genius to his impressive resume. He has a ball as the eccentric, self-doubting and perfectionist artist; he bears a strong resemblance to the late artist, and he captures his mannerisms and swears at the canvas in frustration. He chews the scenery with relish. Hammer delivers a more restrained performance as Lord, through whose eyes we witness events, and he uses gestures and facial expressions to convey his frustration. His voice over narration gives us some further insights into Giacometti’ nature and insecurities as well as his prodigious appetite for wine and women.

Tucci’s long-time collaborator and friend Tony Shalhoub (Big Dinner, etc) delivers a nice, subtle and droll performance as Giacometti’s brother Diego, a famous sculptor in his own right. The female roles are less well developed however. Clemence Poesy plays the prostitute Caroline, Giacometti’s mistress and muse, and she brings a touch of much needed energy to the material. Sylvie Testud plays Giacometti’s long-suffering wife Anne.

While the synopsis makes the film seem about as appealing as watching paint dry, the fact is that Final Portrait is an engaging and amusing character study that is an unexpected delight.

Giacometti was indifferent to fame and wealth, but ironically one of his paintings sold at auction in 2015 for a reported $126 million.

★★★☆

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