Director: Stanley Tucci
Cast: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub, Sylvie Testud
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexual references and nudity)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 3/23/18 (limited); 3/30/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 29, 2018
Alberto Giacometti, the artist at the center of Final Portrait, was primarily known as a sculptor. He drew and painted, too, but from the movie, we can gauge why those works were of secondary concern to him. At some point, a sculpture is finished. The material inevitably will set. The artist can add to the piece or chisel away at it, but such changes are going to be cosmetic ones. The bulk of the work is finished in whatever form it has taken upon the hardening of the material.
A drawing or a painting, on the other hand, can be in a constant state of evolution. Pencils have erasers. The paint may dry on a canvas, but another stroke of the brush will add another layer of paint. If something goes amiss or a composition looks wrong, an artist need only apply a broader stroke with a neutral color to cover up what already has been painted. Then it's simply a matter of waiting for that paint to dry and to start the process again.
This happens repeatedly in writer/director Stanley Tucci's movie, which details the relationship between Giacometti and his biographer James Lord (Armie Hammer) as they go through the arduous process of the artist creating a portrait of the writer. The artist, played by Geoffrey Rush, is a man consumed with doubts about his artistic abilities. The painting is, by Alberto's own initial estimate, only supposed to take a few hours—an afternoon at the most.
Instead, the author spends over two weeks sitting in the artist's messy, rather unaccommodating studio, as Alberto mainly stares at the canvas or James' face. Most of the time, he ends up yelling and cursing at the work, ending the day's session with only the brief warning of certain four-letter words.
This is the basic outline of the story, which plays as something of an extended joke about James' politeness getting the better of him. In Alberto's mind, there is no end to the process of making a portrait, since it would be impossible to capture the way he sees a person on canvas. He also has no consciousness of his process. The act of painting comes as if from some unknown source. Alberto says he has no way of controlling it. The muse, for lack of a better term, strikes him and recedes on whims. In the meantime, James sits for the artist, is scolded whenever he moves in even the slightest way, and keep pushing back his airline reservation to return home to New York City.
We don't learn much about these two men, except that Alberto is a man of wildly alternating passions and that James is perhaps too accommodating. The artist's mood shifts with as little warning as his termination of a modeling session.
His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) insists that Alberto is only happy when he is discontent. James jokes that the artist should be the happiest man in Paris, but Diego clarifies that the levels of unhappiness must be in a perfect state of harmony. It doesn't make much sense, but then again—as with any artist who finds misery in success and doubt in accomplishment—neither does Alberto. Outside of his work, Alberto's mood is usually determined by how vocal his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) is about her own frustration, as well as the appearance or absence of Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a sex worker with whom Alberto has been having an affair for three years.
The movie isn't much of a character study, especially when it comes to James, who mostly goes along with what seems to be a futile mission. We deduce that he's in a relationship, based on a handful of phone calls to an increasingly frustrated and unheard partner on the other end of the line, and that he is gay, based on a single line about not being attracted to women. He's the straight man to the gag of an artist who craves an unattainable goal of perfection, even though he's fully aware that it is beyond his grasp.
We learn as much as we do about these characters quickly. The rest of the movie repeats these beats with some minor variations. As a joke, it's funny for a brief while, if only because Rush plays the mood swings with a level of patience that allows the outbursts to come unexpectedly—even when we know for certain that they're inevitable. In between the painting or the awkward silence of the lack of any work being done, the two men have a few conversations about the philosophy and the process behind artistic creation. They are, for the most part, about as basic as the movie's characterizations of these men. Considering how little happens here, these discussions are a welcome respite.
Tucci's ambitions here are apparent, but he's undone by the limitations of this scenario. Ultimately, Final Portrait isn't much of a biography, a character study, a joke, or an examination of the mind of an artist.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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