Final Portrait – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Stanley Tucci
Writer: Stanley Tucci
Stars: Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Geoffrey Rush
When Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti’s “Homme au doigt“ was sold for $141.3m at Christie’s in May 2015, it achieved the highest price for any sculpture at auction. Stanley Tucci’s film, Final Portrait, tells of a period towards the end of Giacometti’s life when he invited a friend, American art critic James Lord, to sit for him for what turned out to be the last portrait he ever painted. Lord, flattered by the offer and promised that the sittings would take only two or three days at most, postponed his return to the US and accepted with pleasure Giacometti’s invitation.
The project, however, dragged on from three days to a week to a month, constantly extended as the artist struggled with his self-doubt, always convinced that the perfect portrait would be completed “tomorrow”. Lord, at first frustrated by the delay, was torn between irritation and the pride he felt at being chosen for this important portrait, but as time passed he became resigned to the fact that this was a process over which he had little control and accepted the eccentricity of his situation with a Zen-like patience. Giacometti, in the meantime, seemed inspired by Beckett’s dictum “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” and struggled on to achieve a perfection that he would recognise only when he saw it. In Lord’s eyes, the portrait often seemed on the brink of completion only to be painted over by a distraught Giacometti, clutching his head, muttering “Fuck, fuck, fuck”, convinced that the work had no merit.
The action of the film takes place mainly in Giacometti’s studio with an occasional break when the artist insists that Lord accompany him on a walk around Paris to clear his head. Lit in a grey filter, the chiaroscuro effect created reflects the limited palette that Giacometti uses to create his portrait. Tucci’s film tells us little about his characters apart from artistic struggle they are involved in. Of Lord (played with a great sense of stillness by Armie Hammer) we learn absolutely nothing apart from a hint about his sexuality and the fact that he has written a book. His role is simply to sit and wait for the project to be completed.
Geoffrey Rush, in the role of Giacometti, looks uncannily like his subject and gives a subtly layered performance, in turn, frustrated, vulnerable, despairing, euphoric. His pursuit of perfection in his artistic life is in contrast with his chaotic personal life, living in a hovel with his long-suffering wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), once his muse, a role now taken by his demanding mistress, Caroline (Clémence Poésy). Rush captures both the infuriating and lovable qualities of Giacometti and creates a character with whom we empathise.
This is not a film for everybody. If you’re looking for action and excitement, try elsewhere. Final Portrait is a slow and subtle study of an artist’s effort to create a perfect work, regardless of the strains and problems that struggle entails for those around him. However, that is not to say the film is ever dull. The strong central performances, underpinned by Tucci’s subtle humour, hold our attention throughout and give us an insight into the life of a remarkable man. The release of the film is timely, coinciding with a major exhibition of Giacometti’s work at the Tate Modern, London, which runs until 10th September.