The struggles of the tortured artist is an attractive story for Hollywood, from the Picasso-centric Lust for Life to the modern-day biopic Basquiat. These films attempt to scrape under the paint-spattered surface of their subject, exposing them as a jangled bundle of nerves and self doubt. This is a feeling so unique to artists that at one point in Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait, the film’s subject, Alberto Giacometti states that success breeds self-doubt. Final Portrait doesn’t paint anything new with its focus on the troubled Giacometti, but it does situate itself as an actor’s showcase for its sprightly cast as they attempt to harness the manic world of Giacometti, and ultimately present him as an artist of merit whose own fear of mortality and perfectionism kept him from doing more.
In 1964 while on a brief trip to Paris writer James Lord (Armie Hammer) takes painter Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) up on his offer to paint a portrait of him. What starts out as a three-day sitting turns into a two-week attempt by Lord to convince Giacometti to finish the endevour.
Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait’s director and writer, crafts a feature about the nature of art itself. At one point Giacometti says art can never be finished, leading Lord to ask “then what’s the point?” His question isn’t limited to wondering what the point of him sitting for the painter is, but also what’s the point of any art? What’s the point of watching this movie? Or directing it for that matter? These questions are never definitively answered but through Rush’s fevered performance as Giacometti you could deduce it’s to fight off death, one of the last grand adventures the painter says he’s never undergone. Where Giacometti is manic, his brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) is quiet and reserved. Content to not make waves Shalhoub’s Diego is there to act as placator, attempting to get Alberto to finish but knowing he never will.
There’s a comic sensibility to Lord’s relationship with the frazzled painter. Hammer is the perfect straight man, left to roll his eyes and shake his head as Giacometti goes through the litany of ways to avoid painting – having a drink, needing lunch, or just deciding it’s not good and starting over. The relationship between the two needs to be strong considering we know about Giacometti’s life and hardly anything about Lord’s. There are blink and you’ll miss ’em references to Lord’s homosexuality, but they almost play as jokes. “Did I really hear that” moments. When Lord and Giacometti are painting the film allows the two to discuss art, but it’s almost as if the movie wants to be a Before Sunrise-esque paen to art criticism. The story is compelling, but the script seems to believe it’s only being utilized to preach.
Giacometti is presented to us as a man constantly indulging in life, at times coming off as incredibly selfish while at others caring too much. His relationship with his wife, Annette (Sylvia Testud) is at times tender and strained as Annette demands a life of stability which Giacometti considers “bourgeois.” Testud’s quiet melancholy elevates a character who often finds herself relegated to the frame’s periphery, especially in contrast to the flighty Caroline (Clemence Poesy), Giacometti’s mistress. Poesy is a ball of light as the innocent prostitute who is both the painter’s muse and seemingly the only one able to get him to experience life. Her appearances are create a frenzied world of destruction, yet it’s understandable why Giacometti loves her, even willing to pay for six months of her “company” to her pimps upfront.
Unlike other Parisian-set features Tucci’s 1960s take on Paris is decidedly drab. Cafes look lush and inviting, but more often than not the characters are left sitting in gray, sculpture-strewn studios or cramped alleys. Lord and Giacometti’s mid-day strolls through a cemetery do little more than enhance the futility of the whole portrait, as well as showing Paris as a landscape of dead tastemakers.
Final Portrait does an excellent job of capturing the anxiety, the malaise, and distraction that comes from wanting to create something. It’s a film that will be relatable to artists and writers, creators of all stripes. Rush and Hammer fill in the gaps where additional characterization would be nice to see. An overall respectable portrait of a man compelled to create.