The actor and director Stanley Tucci read journalist/essayist and biographer James Lord’s account of “sitting” for acclaimed sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti and saw a movie in it, a simple “two-hander” in the parlance of pictures, a comic war of wills and dueling vanities.
“Final Portrait” is the film he gleaned from that biography, a tale of mismatched equals bantering and wrestling over something both of them desperately want. The famous artist wants to paint the pretty, pretty man. The pretty pretty man wants yet ANOTHER famous artist to immortalize him on canvas.
Geoffrey Rush plays Giacometti as a shambling slouch of a genius — cavalier about the cash raining down on him for his clay sculptures and abstract paintings. It’s 1964, and the Italian-Swiss artist is at the peak of his fame, one of the few people Picasso would call a “peer.” But outside of the art world of the day, outside of Paris, who knows him? He never achieved Pablo’s notoriety.
But Lord (Armie Hammer), a dashing gay swain with published travel writings and artist profiles, appreciates the master. He has, as he would title a later memoir (one of many), “A Gift for Admiration.” And as Giacometti would like to repay that flattery with a portrait, and promises “two, three hours, an afternoon at most” for Lord to collect another vision of himself as seen by a great artist, why not?
It’s only when sitting for the great artist that his future biographer gets a taste of the “real” Giacometti. He dabs a bit on the canvas, and CURSES. He dabs a bit more, and wanders over to admire, criticize or tinker with a clay sculpture in progress. He drops the brush and suggests “Lunch?”
“It is impossible to to ever finish a portrait,” the old man grumbles.
“So what we’re doing is meaningless?”
Lord listens to the comical expletives, the grousing insecurities, and has the effrontery to ask, “Have you ALWAYS been like this?” He answers each Giacometti “That’s a start,” signalling the end of the work for the day, with “I was supposed to leave tomorrow.” He watches Giacometti toss an inferior sculpture on the floor, shattering it, with “What a ham!”
“I thought you were WITHOUT affectation!”
Tucci has read this memoir and picked up on Lord’s own inflated self-regard, the filter of the egotistical author remembering his younger self as an equal to the great artist and carrying and comporting himself as such. Hammer, sharing his scenes with an accomplished Oscar winner, holds his own as well. His patrician physical perfection decked out in the lounging classes’ dapper shirt, tie, blue sport coat and chinos, he endures Rush’s closer-than-close-up examination of his physical features with a stifled grin.
“From the front,” Giacometti, who looked a lot like Geoffrey Rush, grouses “you look like a brute. From the SIDE, you look like a DEGENERATE!”
Tucci’s “Big Night” muse, Tony Shalhoub, plays another brother figure here, the artist’s wry, indulgent assistant, a man who builds the frames the sculptures are molded onto, who stretches canvases and boxes them up when finished.
“I’m reading a good book.”
“Is it one of mine?” Again, Lord’s ego.
“No, it is ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.'”
“What’s it about?”
“A spy. Who comes in…from the cold.”
Lord observes the long-suffering former muse (Sylvia Testud) who shares her life with Giacometti, and the giddy, spendthrift prostitute (Clemence Poesy) who has his attentions now. And he sits. And waits.
“Don’t SCRATCH your nose.”
“Final Portrait” is a slight little nothing of a story, but I delighted in its wordplay, its depiction of a Paris as imagined in the mottled greys and dull browns of Giacometti’s art. Tucci’s production designer creates a drab ruin of a studio, all mud spattered floors and walls, grey light coming in from above.
Tucci uses his camera as the artist’s eye, exploring in tight close-up the tiny details of Hammer’s perfectly sculpted face just as Giacometti/Rush leans in to get a feel for his subject. The painting, starting with the eyes and working outward, gives us a new appreciation for the artist and his technique.
And “Final Portrait,” coming close on the heels of all the Oscar attention for “Call Me By Your Name,” lifts Hammer out of the league of lightweights he’s been trapped in.
Or anoints him their king. Either way, a delicious pas de deux for these two.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual references and nudity
Cast: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush, Tony Shalhoub, Clémence Poésy, Sylvia Testud
Credits:Written and directed by Stanley Tucci, adapted from James Lord’s memoir, ” “A Giacometti Portrait.” A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:30