“Final Portrait”

Final Portrait

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.

4/5

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“Transformers: The Last Knight”

Transformers: The Last Knight

POPCORN DIRECTOR AND pyrotechnics fetishist Michael Bay once defended his style of filmmaking by arguing that he caters to “teenage boys”. It occurred to me not long into Transformers: The Last Knight, just as yet another explosion sent bodies flying through the air, that Mr. Bay might have been a little hopeful in saying so.

A more suitable audience, I later thought (this time attempting to distract myself from some insufferable inter-Transformer “banter”), might be the inhabitants of the monkey enclosure at London Zoo. After all, monkeys tend not to be too bothered if something lacks a coherent or compelling narrative (as those troublesome teenage boys can be) and at any rate, if they don’t like what they see they can hurl excrement at the screen in a way that cinema audiences are generally frowned upon for doing.

This latest monstrosity begins as you might expect it to––that is, with explosions, frantic jump-cutting and gratuitous slow-mo. The setting is England, and the time is the Dark Ages; a local army is attempting to repel an invading Saxon force, and they eventually succeed with the help of a little wizardry. In the modern day, inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) accumulates a pulpy and pint-sized sidekick (Isabel Miner) after a run-in with the new anti-Transformer police, and flees to the scrapyard where he and a handful of Transformers are in hiding. The human race is now at war with all Transformers, which makes Yeager a fugitive.


 The story revolves around the interspecies war and a mysterious artefact that can save Earth from destruction by the Transformer planet, Cybertron, and its Medusa-like sorceress ruler, Quintessa. You can probably gather from that preamble that the story is lacking.


Now, for the purpose of those who had the good sense to skip the first four movies but are inexplicably reading a review of the fifth, the Autobots, usually led by Optimus Prime (a Transformer who turns into a gaudy red-and-blue truck), are at constant war with the Decepticons who, as I’m sure the keen linguists among you will have guessed, aren’t to be trusted. In this latest offering in the series, the King Arthur myth––bear with me here––is reimagined to have involved several very old Transformers. The wizard Merlin’s “magic”, meanwhile, is in fact advanced alien technology passed on by these Transformers. The story revolves around the interspecies war and a mysterious artefact that can save Earth from destruction by the Transformer planet, Cybertron, and its Medusa-like sorceress ruler, Quintessa. You can probably gather from that preamble that the story is lacking.

Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan’s script sends the story backwards and forwards in time and from Dakota to Havana to London; at each stage they punctuate the explosions and slugfests with hilariously abrupt and slushy attempts at making the characters seem human. In doing so, they simply remind us that while Wahlberg can do comedy and action perfectly well, he cannot do sadness or sympathy or sincerity.


Much of the story, while we’re vaguely on the subject, takes place in England, which of course implies a Norman castle, Oxford University, cut-glass received pronunciation, an eccentric Lord in a tweed jacket and a butler, albeit a robotic one. (Look to the skies, dear reader, and you might just see Mary Poppins flying by).


Stanley Tucci, playing a hook-nosed Merlin, squeezes something vaguely resembling a laugh out of his lines. Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins, who plays the ditsy historian and astronomer Sir Edmund Burton, provides needless exposition not too different from his narration in Thor, while Laura Haddock plays the no-nonsense English Literature Professor Viviane Wembly and is the female lead and love interest. Much of the story, while we’re vaguely on the subject, takes place in England, which of course implies a Norman castle, Oxford University, cut-glass received pronunciation, an eccentric Lord in a tweed jacket and a butler, albeit a robotic one. (Look to the skies, dear reader, and you might just see Mary Poppins flying by).

The film goes on and on (and on). Six editors receive credit for the film, and yet between them they fail to establish anything resembling a rhythm. The shots are cut together so quickly that half the time you find it difficult to know what the hell is going on. Some of the action scenes are engaging enough, however, and there are, if we are to be fair, several arresting shots of cityscapes and the depths of outer space. In most cases, what you see on screen blows up shortly afterwards.

The highlight of the film was the surprisingly good glass of wine I was served before, thought it sadly did little to numb my senses against what was to follow; in Transformers: The Last Knight, Bay offers his audience noise and explosions, but no depth, no nuance and absolutely no hope. Maybe I’m not quite the target market for Bay’s bearing of his soul, but if you’d rather not feel like you just witnessed and assisted in your own mugging, I’d see something else.

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