You could plausibly argue there isn’t much to director Stanley Tucci’s film Final Portrait. Famous artist based in Paris asks an American friend to sit for him before he returns home; it shouldn’t take long. But after the first sitting the painting has barely begun, the artist’s perfectionist tendencies are already all too apparent, and the friend keeps having to postpone his journey; this goes on for two frustrating weeks.
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Not much of a plot, it must be admitted. Yet the film has immense charm, a host of terrific performances and a rueful air about it: this maddening indecision can be the cost of artistic greatness.
Geoffrey Rush, who these days doesn’t grace the big screen often enough for my liking, plays Alberto Giacometti in 1964, aged 63. He is in his twilight years, working from a studio of heroic shabbiness, cursing and railing at the world and his own perceived inadequacies as an artist. He drinks, chain-smokes and maintains a relationship with Caroline, a younger woman (Clemence Poesy) in plain view of his long-suffering wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). All those clichés about dissolute artists in Paris had to come from somewhere, and Giacometti seems to have written the guidance manual.
His wayward habits are quietly and calmly observed by his seated friend James Lord (played by Arnie Hammer, best known for The Social Network), an art critic and author who is the direct opposite of Giacometti – he is suave, well-dressed, patient and polite. There’s rich subtle comedy here in the mere contrast between them.
Still, this is very much Rush’s film, and he plays Alberto to the hilt, with a permanently hangdog expression, an unruly mop of greying hair, with bouts of snarling self-contempt. Much of the film takes place in his chaotically untidy garret, though there are occasional excursions to the world outside, where he meets with Caroline (who is clearly a prostitute) and pays off her pimps with wads of cash he stuffs into his pockets.
To make all this work, one has to take it as read that Giacometti was indeed as great artist – and those of us lucky enough to catch his exhibition this year at Tate Modern, featuring his distinctive elongated sculptures will need no further evidence.
Director Stanley Tucci, who also wrote the script, has a light touch yet succeeds in illuminating the subtle undertones in every scene here. There’s no question his sympathies are with Alberto – a rightly acclaimed genius, but who would want to live inside his head? There’s certainly a monstrous element in his personality as Rush portrays it, yet it’s hard to resist his charm, no matter how deeply he keeps it hidden.
There are universes of nuance behind the deceptive simplicity of the main plot, and Tucci conveys them in a mere 90 minutes. Unlike Alberto, he’s a man who knows how to get a job done.
Final Portrait clip – Caroline’s Car