Writer-director Stanley Tucci’s fascination with the artistic process yields a lively character study if not quite a full-bodied exploration of the uneven relationship between painter and subject in Final Portrait. Amusing but slight, the small-scale film is elevated by a spirited characterization from Geoffrey Rush as mercurial artist — is there any other kind in movies? — Alberto Giacometti. But as James Lord, the American art writer invited to pose for his friend in what became an epic sitting, Armie Hammer’s role lacks depth, remaining somewhat trapped behind journal entry-style voiceovers.
The name talent involved will ensure at least a modest commercial profile, but James Merifield’s production design is no less a star of the film than Rush. The meticulously detailed re-creation of Giacometti’s cramped Paris studio — a cluttered nook off a tiny courtyard, filled with the artist’s iconic elongated figure sculptures in various stages of completion, as well as drawings, paintings and a mess of art supplies — gives this chamber drama a vibrant principal playing space, spattered with paint, plaster, clay and atmospheric grime. It extends into a small bedroom across the way and a second workshop upstairs, where Alberto’s unflappable brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) tinkers away.
More of a diverting curio than a memorable museum piece.
That set was built in a London studio, and select parts of the English capital also stand in serviceably enough for 1964 Paris, even if the washed-out wintry light makes Final Portrait visually a little flat. That’s despite Danny Cohen’s distractingly agitatissimo handheld camera, which may be intended to mirror Giacometti’s neurotic state but feels otherwise unjustified in a movie that’s far more decorous than edgy.
The two principal characters could not be less alike. Rush’s Alberto is a volatile personality for whom success has bred endless doubt and self-criticism. Hunched and disheveled in his baggy suits and unruly gray mane, he chain-smokes without pause, plunging into his work in furious bouts of activity and then retreating as if betrayed by it.
Hammer’s James, by contrast, is so impeccably groomed he might have stepped out of Mad Men, with his crisp blazer and slacks and his handsome patrician looks. (The real Lord, who died in 2009, was a less chiseled specimen.) He’s also mild-mannered and unfailingly courteous, remaining calm even when what was originally proposed as at most a two- or three-day commitment stretches to almost three weeks, necessitating multiple postponements of James’ return to New York, where an unseen boyfriend waits with increasing impatience.
Following directly after Hammer’s sensitively etched role as another gay man in Luca Guadagnino’s superb Call Me by Your Name, the limited scope of the actor’s part here is a disappointment. Tucci’s script lacks psychological inquisitiveness about the more passive half of the artist-model exchange.
For example, the film neglects to explore what must surely have been an element of vanity in Lord’s willingness to submit to Giacometti’s infuriating stop-start process in an enterprise whose terms were being rewritten almost daily. The incentivizing fact that James had been promised the portrait, finished or not, might also suggest that ego played a part, though there’s no evidence of it in Hammer’s characterization, which begins and ends with scholarly curiosity tinged by fondness.
Work on the painting gradually slides into a repetitive cycle of progress, frustration, creative stasis and renewed inspiration, which validates Alberto’s assertion early on that no portrait can ever be truly completed. That makes for a narrative with little consistent forward momentum and an anticlimactic ending, though the film remains agreeable thanks largely to Rush’s flavorful performance.
It’s fun to hear Giacometti trash Picasso or dismiss Chagall’s ceiling for the Paris Opera as “f—ing house-painting.” And his tactile relationship with his sculptures, caressing them like living creatures that beckon him back even as he tries to step away, makes one wish that the project around which this film revolves was in the fine-arts field of Giacometti’s greater renown.
Rush also gets more meat to bite into with Alberto’s tempestuous personal life. He openly divides his attentions between Annette (Sylvie Testud), his weary wife and former muse, exasperated and humiliated at having to share the man she loves; and Caroline (Clemence Poesy), the prostitute with whom he’s been carrying on a giddy relationship for three years, who is now his primary model.
Testud is terrific at conveying the clashing forces of adoration and gnawing resentment, even as Annette sits canoodling on a bed with the Japanese lover (Takatsuna Mukai) encouraged by her husband. But Poesy has got to be the perkiest, most fresh-faced prostie ever to have walked Rue Saint-Denis, and the greed of Caroline’s pimps to extort more cash out of her trysts with the famous artist represents a conflict that’s resolved as soon as it arises.
Evan Lurie’s score, together with some wispy French period pop, keeps the mood light, though incessant punctuation of the action with bursts of precious strings does little to disguise the thinness of the material. More successful on that count is Rush, who brings wit, world-weariness, mischief and even a sad lost quality when Caroline vanishes from Alberto’s orbit for a spell. It’s a lusty performance, barely contained by the slender charms of a vehicle in which the energy too often comes from a single source.
That said, it’s pleasing to see Shalhoub bring his gentle, twinkly-eyed charisma to a part that’s a wry sideline observer, an indulgent supporter and an artist of a far more composed nature. The actor’s presence is a sweet reminder of Tucci’s first and best foray as director, Big Night. Final Portrait doesn’t come close to that 1996 film’s buoyancy, but its minor-key pleasures have their own appeal.
Production companies: Potboiler Productions, Riverstone Pictures, in association with Olive Productions, Arsam International, Lowsun Productions
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Tony Shalhoub, Sylvie Testud, Clemence Poesy, James Faulkner, Takatsuna Mukai
Director-screenwriter: Stanley Tucci, based on James Lord’s memoir, A Giacometti Portrait
Producers: Gail Egan, Nik Bower, Ilann Girard
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: James Merifield
Costume designer: Liza Bracey
Music: Evan Lurie
Editor: Camilla Toniolo
Casting: Nina Gold
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: HanWay Films