Final Portrait (2017)
The search for perfection never ends
Gone are the days when a ‘biopic’ would have to cram a person’s entire life into one single feature. Instead of showing the whole ‘unfiltered’ story, a recent trend has allowed filmmakers to focus squarely on a couple of key moments in a person’s life. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), for instance, looked at the American president’s desire to pass a 13th Amendment in order to abolish slavery, while 2014’s Mr. Turner focused on the later years of British painter J. M. W. Turner. Final Portrait takes this one step further, with writer-director Stanley Tucci, Blind Date (2007), covering a mere few weeks in the life of famous Swiss-born sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti.
Set in 1964, the film follows American writer and art-lover James Lord (an impeccably groomed Armie Hammer), who, on a short trip to Paris, is asked to sit for a portrait for his friend, world-renowned artist Alberto Giacometti (an impeccably cast Geoffrey Rush). Although Lord insists that he has to leave for New York in a couple of days, Giacometti assures him that it’ll be quick. Both flattered and curious, Lord agrees. Soon after, Lord meets Alberto at his ramshackle workspace, the maestro warning his subject that he’d never before finished a painting, and deemed it impossible to do so. Once again, Lord reminds Giacometti that he has a plane to catch, but the disheveled artist reassures him that everything will be fine. James, however, quickly discovers that this isn’t the case as Giacometti repeatedly keeps asking him to come back, day after day — Lord even postponing his flight — so that the obsessive, self-sabotaging Alberto can paint the ‘perfect’ portrait. The thing is, the perfection he’s searching for seems to be unachievable, his bohemian studio filled to the brim with half-done work, Alberto claiming that even his most celebrated pieces are still incomplete.
Based on Lord’s acclaimed book A Giacometti portrait, which details the 18 days he spent in the company of Alberto Giacometti, Final Portrait is something of a passion project for filmmaker Tucci, who paints a ‘warts-and-all’ sketch of a tortured artist that had reached the end of his tether. Once a renowned virtuoso who didn’t give fame a second thought, Giacometti was often dissatisfied with his own efforts and would constantly start over, elongating the entire art-making process — we see Giacometti shout profanities at his canvas and degrade his art by burning his drawings or wiping out days’ worth of work only to start again.
Sitting through Final Portrait, viewers only get small snippets into Giacometti’s life, the audience learning about the chain-smoking post-impressionist through Lord’s seemingly endless visits. Over the course of the two-plus weeks, we kinda get to know Giacometti through ‘hanging out’ with him, witnessing all of his eccentric habits and mannerisms, along with his odd work schedule and complicated relationships; we also visit the places he frequents, including a local bistro where he guzzles down coffee and booze.
With that said, the bulk of the picture takes place in Giacometti’s filthy living quarters — his cold, decrepit studio, its adjoining bedroom and unkempt courtyard — this homestead situated in a dingy Paris alley. Meticulously re-created by production designer James Merifield, Mortdecai (2015), the grimy, paint-splattered studio is jam-packed with unfinished plaster sculptures (all in various stages of production) as well as numerous etchings and paintings, Giacometti even hiding wads of cash, which his agent delivers, in and around the premises for safe keeping. Similarly, the film’s simple color palette is a window into Giacometti’s eyes, its blues, blacks, whites, greys and yellows, the very shades he would often use in his work.
Clad in crumpled, cruddy suits, Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare in Love (1998) — who resembles something of a nutty scientist — delivers a transformative performance as the wrinkled Alberto Giacometti, the 66-year-old’s interpretation of this flawed perfectionist the film’s biggest virtue. Armie Hammer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), is also good as audience surrogate James Lord, a convivial, well-kept art connoisseur. Just like Rush, Hammer fits his character like a glove, the hunky 31-year-old managing to sell Lord’s overly courteous side, chiefly when he’s forced to keep changing his plans, continually justifying things to his partner over the phone — who is waiting for him back in the Big Apple. Although polar opposites, our leads play well off one another, Lord and Giacometti’s daily strolls (through a graveyard) allowing them to chat about the philosophy of art, and how much Alberto despises Picasso.
Rush also gets to delve into the darker, sadder parts of Alberto’s world as viewers are introduced to those closest to him. Sylvie Testud, La Vie en Rose (2007), is solid as Giacometti’s long-suffering wife and former muse Annette, who’s resentfully sharing the man she loves with a French prostitute. Clémence Poésy, The Ones Below (2015), radiates as said hooker Caroline, Alberto’s new model whom he openly flirts with, Poésy making for a convincing siren. Giacometti’s tragic fixation with Caroline really comes out when she goes missing for a short period of time, the smitten artist eventually paying her pimps piles of money so that he can keep the fiery red-head around, Caroline the only evident necessity in his life. Tucci’s long-time friend and collaborator Tony Shalhoub plays Alberto’s assistant and brother Diego, who seems to be the only person who understands the ensuing madness, Shalhoub lurking in the background with a cynical smile until Lord turns to him for a helping hand.
Just like Giacometti’s complex artwork, Final Portrait won’t be for everyone; the film’s ending, for one, feels abrupt and unsatisfying, while the pacing is a tad slow and sluggish. Be that as it may, writer-director Tucci has crafted a nice little gem of a film, one that surveys an odd friendship whilst exploring what it means to create art — and how frustrating, exhilarating, exasperating and perplexing the whole process can be.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie