Film Review: Final Portrait
Directed by: Stanley Tucci
Review by: Belle McIntyre
There is a double meaning in the title of this film focusing on the Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti. While the premise is the three weeks during which the American writer James Lord agreed to sit for what Alberto declared would be his last portrait, and which ultimately came to be true, it is actually more of a portrait of Giacometti and his process of making art. We see a driven man of intense focus, full of self- doubt, libidinous, voracious in his appetites for wine, cigarettes, and sex, completely selfish and full of fire and fury played to rumpled unruly perfection by Geoffrey Rush.The time is Paris in 1964 and Alberto has been successful for decades yet still lives and works like a starving artist in a fairly grungy studio with no proper kitchen, no assistants and populated by a community of spectral figures of his own creation.
He has asked the buttoned-up young American (Armie Hammer) to pose for a painting for just a day. Lord, who writes about 20th century art is at the end of a visit to Paris and planning to leave in a few days, is thoroughly flattered and intrigued and enthusiastically agrees. On day one the first thing Alberto says to him once he has assumed his position is that he looks like a thug. When Lord placidly acknowledges the comment, he doubles down and says from the other side he looks like a criminal. Alberto appears to be toying with his sitter and establishing his authority. At the end of the session he declares that now they can begin, ignoring the fact of Lord’s travel plans, and suggesting that he will just need a few more days and surely Lord can manage to give him that. And the first of many calls to airlines for flight changes happens. And there you have the gist of the rest of the film. Groundhog Day in Paris.
The days turn into weeks in increments of a few days at a time. The work is interrupted by Alberto raging at the canvas and painting out the days work, taking breaks for boozy lunches, unannounced appearances of Alberto’s girlfriend and model, Caroline, a French prostitute with whom he is obsessed. He shamelessly carries on with her in front of his beaten-down wife and former muse, Annette (Sylvie Testud), to whom he behaves cruelly and dismissively. He showers Caroline with money and gifts and seems to resent his wife who gets nothing but abuse. He is not a nice man.
We also meet Alberto’s brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), who shares the studio. He is self-effacing, and reticent, the polar opposite of Alberto. When Alberto’s dealer arrives with stacks of money, Alberto pays his commission by eye, never counting it. The rest he squirrels away in strange hiding places around the studio, which he often forgets. He does not trust banks.
Through it all is the patient, bland-seeming James Lord, who is a party to all of this chaos but seems to have had no influence on Alberto or the progress. I’m afraid his character is too underwritten to make this a dynamic story. It is a one-way dialog between the two men with Rush getting all of the scenery chewing and Hammer acting as a prop. We get no sense of what is going on inside of his head that makes the tedium of the exercise worth his while. He does not even register the fascination or awe which must have driven him to endure. I don’t know if it is the fault of Tucci or Hammer. I am waiting for the film that provides him a chance to act, beyond being insanely tall, handsome and well-spoken. From research, it seems that James Lord was clever, charming and gossipy, and very much a part of the art world. But none of that is revealed in this film. As it turns out, there were significant rewards for Lord. He wrote his memoir, “A Giacometti Portrait”, on which this film is based as well as a 600-page biography of Giacometti. And the painting, once it was finished, he sold for 20 million dollars.
It is hard to make a film about making art. Artists are, so often, horrible egomaniacs who get away with bad behavior as slaves to their craft. We get a lot of insight into Giacometti’s psyche and the source of his self-doubt. It was his success which fueled his insecurity and made him feel fraudulent. He allowed that he felt that most of the work which he had made was not even finished and arrived at almost unintentionally. I think that many artists suffer from those torments. He almost did not believe that a work could ever be finished. No wonder he suffered for that portrait, the film has merit. I only wish it had been a bit more fleshed out as a film.