LIKE A GOOD meal, a good film leaves you feeling satisfied long after, no matter how greedy you happen to be. Such is the case with Final Portrait, the alternately droll and intense tale of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti’s attempt to paint a visiting young critic in Sixties Paris. Through a shared artistic concern, Giacometti formed something approaching a friendship with his subject, just as he had with the novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. It was Beckett who described Giacometti as “not obsessed but possessed”, which gives us some understanding of the inner life of the notoriously eccentric artist depicted here with compassion and humour by director Stanley Tucci.
In 1964, the American writer and art aficionado James Lord (Armie Hammer) is asked to sit for a portrait by the eccentric Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) at his chaotic studio-home in Paris. According to Giacometti the process will only take a few days, and Lord, clearly flattered, agrees. Needless to say it doesn’t, and what follows is something of a battle to finish the painting––Giacometti says art “can never be finished”––which strains both the patience and the bank balance of his subject, who is forced to make a serious of costly flight cancellations. All the while, Giacometti philosophises, agonises and allows the young writer to witness the various frictions in his life, punctuated by exclamations of what becomes his signature phrase: “Ah, FUCK!”
The cheerful plucking of string instruments and the rich and reedy sound of the accordion sets the tone for a whimsical story in a style not dissimilar from that of Woody Allen or Pedro Almodóvar, and the humour in particular, which is both shockingly dark––at one point Giacometti tells Lord that fantasies of rape and murder help him get to sleep––and absurd––“Have you ever wanted to be a tree?”, asks Giacometti––begs the comparison.
Giacometti philosophises, agonises and allows the young writer to witness the various frictions in his life, punctuated by exclamations of what becomes his signature phrase: “Ah, FUCK!”
The film pursues two narratives at the same time: the first concerns the evolution of a friendship between two starkly different people. James Lord is tall and handsome and polite; his counterpart is shabby and eccentric. Nevertheless the pair form a definite bond that is part-friendship, part-duel and part sinner-confessor over a mutual love of art and the artistic process. Lord is initially stunned when, for instance, Giacometti casually tosses a brown envelope containing millions of dollars into a corner of his filthy studio, but as the film progresses he seems to understand better Giacometti’s peculiar philosophy. That’s not to say that James falls under Giacometti’s spell, so to say: it is to Tucci’s credit that he allows the friendship to develop without either man compromising their own way of being or worldview for the sake of creating chemistry.
But Final Portrait is an examination of the equally profound and tumultuous creative process, marked out both implicitly and explicitly by the actions and words of the tortured Giacometti, who when outside his studio drunkenly prowls the streets for prostitutes and drinks enough red wine to, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, kill (or at least stun) a mule. The callous way in which he treats those around him is depicted as a corollary of a highly unusual mind, which is, if not exactly justification then at least some kind of explanation.
Cinematographer and longtime Tom Hooper collaborator Danny Cohen, who worked on The King’s Speech, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl among other acclaimed films, deserves huge credit for imbuing Final Portrait with an intimate, authentic and unrefined quality that mirrors Giacometti’s own rough and monochromatic style.
Cinematographer and longtime Tom Hooper collaborator Danny Cohen, who worked on The King’s Speech, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl among other acclaimed films, deserves huge credit for imbuing Final Portrait with an intimate, authentic and unrefined quality that mirrors Giacometti’s own rough and monochromatic style. His camera moves in a leisurely, meandering way around Giacometti’s filthy studio––impressively recreated by production designer James Merifield––and the streets of the French capital.
Armie Hammer and Geoffrey Rush are perfectly cast for their respective roles. Rush plays Giacometti with sympathy and wit. He is riddled with self-doubt but equally prone to violent outbursts. Through superb and often subtle physical acting Rush manages somehow to communicate the workings of a chaotic and relentless inner mind, and a perceptible feeling of isolation that is reflected in the emaciation and loneliness of his sculptures. His face is fixed in a permanent expression of contempt and perplexity, in stark opposition to the easy smile of Lord, who is unfailingly charming and composed. A lively Clémence Poesy plays Giacometti’s lover and muse, the cheerful prostitute Caroline, and Sylvie Testud is excellent as Giacometti’s unimpressed wife, Annette, who has taken a lover of her own.
If nothing else, Final Portrait will make an interesting companion piece to those curious, elongated figures at the retrospective of Giacometti at the Tate Modern. To this humble reviewer, however, Final Portrait is a deft exploration of what it means to be a great artist and what it means to create great art.