If ever there was a film summed up by its opening shot, “Final Portrait,” the gentle two-hander from mostly-actor-occasional-director Stanley Tucci (“Big Night“) is it. In an art gallery, underneath a white wall emblazoned with his dynamic, carelessly elegant signature slouches, famous Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), a rumpled, untidy assemblage of a man, stares morosely at the floor. Enter stage right, author and subsequent Giacometti biographer, James Lord (Armie Hammer), as tall and golden as the artist is hunched and shabby, looking the definition of “preppie” in his blazer and slacks, with a side parting that could’ve been cut by a sushi chef. He leans insouciantly against the door frame and looks across at Giacometti who doesn’t move. This study in contrasting physicality is dominated by the signature on the wall, up there like a logo for Giacometti’s “brand.” This is a film about the relationship between the two men, but it is defined by each of their relationships to that third entity, over which neither seems to have much control: his artistic image.
In retrospective voiceover, with jaunty Parisian music playing as he walks the streets, Lord tells us it is 1964 and he is on a brief stay in the French capital, where he has befriended Giacometti and his brother Diego (played in a lovely, understated supporting turn by Tony Shalhoub) and been asked by the artist to sit for a portrait under the assurance it will only take a few hours. This assurance turns out to be false, and in the lengthening days and weeks the process takes, the light, spry, enjoyable story unfolds. It’s a monument to completion anxiety, artistic self-doubt, and the endless amusement generated by a wild-haired Geoffrey Rush shouting “Fuck!” at a canvas, which never gets old.
Tucci’s facility with performance should come as no surprise: this is a film built as an actor showcase, and Rush is effortlessly magnetic as the irascible aging genius, whose barked-out aphorisms and general DGAF air are just part of a smokescreen (literally — he chain-smokes throughout) sent up to obscure an unexpectedly touching, mile-wide streak of uncertainty and humility. It is the showier part, however and in a quieter, more watchfully observant, and occasionally ironic register, Hammer, increasingly impressive in roles that ever so slightly investigate or subvert his bland good looks, is the perfect foil.
The relationship between the two men necessarily changes over this period of time, but it is to the credit of Tucci’s screenplay, which is based on Lord’s memoir of the artist, that it is not so melodramatic or sentimental an arc as you might first assume. They do become closer, inside and outside the cluttered, picturesque studio where Giacometti lives and works (the set design here is impeccable, if romanced in its artful evocation of disarray). Lord accompanies the changeable Giacometti on trips to the local bar where they supply his rudimentary lunch, along with a couple of brimful glasses of wine downed at a swallow, without his even ordering. He even on one occasion heads out for a drive with the artist and his other subject — the young manic pixie prostitute Caroline (Clemence Poesy), with whom Giacometti is borderline obsessed, much to the pinched misery of his long-suffering wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). But a certain formality and reserve remains in their friendship to the end, with the effortlessly affable Lord, about whom personally we learn so little that a glancing reference to his homosexuality at one point comes as a slight surprise, never failing to observe his place in the master/acolyte hierarchy, no matter how outrageous, undignified, or careless Giacometti’s behavior.
And yet that’s not to say the film is shapeless or, as could well have been meta-appropriate, unfinished. Instead there’s a broad satisfaction to how it plays out, even without a grand ta-dah! moment. Lord, with a little help from Diego, eventually has to employ benign subterfuge to get the painting declared done, but the delicacy of Tucci’s approach suggests that perhaps that was Giacometti’s project all along: not so much to paint a picture, or even to make a friend, but to get Lord to understand him, and his process, in a far deeper way than he ever could have otherwise. The series of sittings and encounters that the film portrays is almost like a series of interviews (it somewhat recalls the James Ponsoldt‘s “The End of the Tour” in that regard), in which the observer/observed roles are reversed from those of artist/subject. Perhaps this is Giacometti’s attempt, however unconscious, to de-mythologize himself and the artistic process in general to the man he somehow knows will end up being the most influential guardian of his legacy, and it’s a generous impulse for which we can’t help but like him even more.
There is on the soundtrack, a moment in which a triangle tings the first time Giacometti’s brush touches the canvas, but that is the first and last time there is any magic in the process. The rest of it is work on top of work, followed by erasure, followed by more work and more uncertainty and so on. “Final Portrait” gives us leave to revere the art without idolizing the artist.
Refreshingly free of the “tortured genius” cliches that can so often characterize biopics of artists, and bouncily, unapologetically fond of its subjects, Tucci’s movie is not a film of grand ambition or world-changing stakes. Instead it’s a charming, modest glimpse into a rarefied world that, lit with so much humble affection for its characters, manages to make it seem not so rarefied after all. In that it seems precisely the kind of project that the Giacometti depicted here, wise despite himself, would want to be the final word on his final portrait. [B]