‘All I’m trying to do is to show people the world as I perceive it’ confesses Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) to his portrait subject, art critic James Lord (Armie Hammer). It’s a notable line both for its universal truth about any and every artist and for its neat summation of the best and worst aspects of Final Portrait – an intriguing and amusing, if slight, look into the mind of an artist that also happens to be almost as frustrating as its myopic lead character. Just like those that Giacometti comes into contact with, Stanley Tucci’s film gets drawn into the gravitational pull of the man, losing some of its other ambitions in the process.
This is Tucci’s fifth directorial effort, and the first of those in which he remains entirely behind the camera, telling the true story of Giacometti’s final portrait in 1964. Asking his friend, Lord, to sit for him, Giacometti promises that the whole process will take no longer than a single afternoon. Two and half weeks later, and Lord is still sitting in the Paris studio, having had to repeatedly extend hotel stays and delay flights. The painting has become an exercise in frustration for the men, both desperate to leave it be yet unable to abandon it in an unfinished state.
Giacometti and Lord’s tension is infectious, and when the process hits its highs and lows, we feel their satisfaction and despair, but the unfortunate flipside to this is that whenever they’re bored, it creeps into the audience as well. Tucci’s script plays interestingly with time, as the hours blur into one another during the painting, yet when Lord complains that he feels he’s been in the studio forever, it’s all too relatable, not a great sign in a 90 minute movie. Tony Shalhoub and Clemence Poesy, as Giacometti’s brother and muse respectively, bring a lot of fun to proceedings whenever they flit in to the story, vital additions when the central plot is rather hard to care about.
Lord is desperate to go home to New York, but the more he complains, the more it becomes obvious that he could just leave. Giacometti’s progress stagnates rather swiftly, with the portrait as finished as it ever will be by about day 3 of 18, with nothing but pride and an artist’s deeply self-centred anxiety keeping the two leads in stasis. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of a creative that can’t quite sustain a feature-length narrative.
As is to be expected from an actor-director’s film, the performances are exceptional with Rush, of course, on cracking (and very sweary) form. His Giacometti is crumpled and cantankerous at the same time as being an unabashed romantic fizzing with life, all the while smoking with such pace and constancy that the cigarette becomes an extra limb. Hammer has an easy chemistry with everyone, bringing a peeved nobility to Lord whether he’s on the phone to an unseen lover back home or being told off like a naughty schoolchild for talking during a posing session.
Tucci’s direction isn’t particularly flourishy, though that isn’t to say that it’s workmanlike in any way. Long takes show off the tactile geography of Giacometti’s studio and in certain scenes, the artist becomes almost indistinguishable from his own unique style of sculptures. A small but memorable stylistic highlight at a dinner does a brilliant job of conveying near-drunkenness without any of the overbearing techniques so often deployed for this unique, hard to capture feeling. Thanks to the inherent problems in making a film about boredom and frustration, Final Portrait is a little less than the sum of its parts, but great acting and a streak of effectively gentle humour keep audience apathy at bay.