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film review

Geoffrey Rush as Alberto Giacometti in Final Portrait.Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel


3 out of 4 stars
  • Final Portrait
  • Written and directed by Stanley Tucci
  • Starring Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer
  • Classification 14A
  • 90 minutes
  • Opening April 6 in Toronto and Vancouver 

In the first moments of Final Portrait, the artist Alberto Giacometti announces that portraiture is both impossible and meaningless in the age of photography. He spends most of the next 90 minutes striving to prove himself wrong.

Final Portrait is a tasteful chamber piece in which Stanley Tucci, the American actor and sometime director (Big Night), and his production designer James Merifield lovingly recreate Giacometti’s studio and postwar Paris in a muted palette of multiple greys. Geoffrey Rush wittily renders the loudly self-doubting modernist sculptor and painter while an impressively impassive Armie Hammer plays the sociable American writer James Lord, the subject of the portrait in question. None of this, however, is what makes Final Portrait a notable film, for it is also the rare biopic of a visual artist that considers the dilemma of the art more seriously than it considers the drama of the life.

Tucci was inspired here by Lord’s own memoirs of his friendship with Giacometti in the 1950s, especially the story told in A Giacometti Portrait, of how the American writer came to sit for the artist in the fall of 1964. The day before he is to catch a plane back to New York, Lord cheerfully agrees to pose for a portrait sketch that Giacometti assures him will only be a matter of a few hours’ work. Two weeks and many phone calls to the airline office later, Lord is still there as Giacometti labours to render in paint what he sees in life.

It is that struggle – and the mysteriously existential nature of it – that provide Tucci with his real drama. Conversations with Giacometti’s gentle brother and assistant Diego (a quietly amused Tony Shalhoub) or walks in the local cemetery to discuss Picasso advance the theme; the loud disruptions of Giacometti’s muse and mistress, the prostitute Caroline (a fabulously energetic Clémence Poésy) stress the claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, but otherwise much of the outside action seems extraneous. Even an enigmatic scene where Giacometti pays off Caroline’s pimp or a yet briefer one where his pained wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) dallies with her own lover feel like distractions. The cosmic joke at the heart of the film is simply whether Giacometti will ever finish the portrait.

As the artist, Rush may not master the linguistic mashup – Giacometti was an Italian-speaking Swiss living in France and his Anglo-Saxon curses sound improbable – but he ably provides the melodrama in the role of the tortured genius and injects just the right amount of humour into Giacometti’s frustration and stasis. It’s a big performance that follows in that showy biographical tradition reaching all the way back to Kirk Douglas’s raging Vincent van Gogh and including, more recently, Ed Harris’s alcoholic Jackson Pollock.

It is up to Hammer, therefore, to explain the actual art-making. Coincidentally cast as another American gadfly in Europe on the heels of Call Me By Your Name, Hammer may be playing a discreetly gay character, but he is Rush’s straight man here, indicating the sitter’s bemusement, exhaustion or despair with the slightest shift of posture or the quietest expression. Tucci’s camera circles the sitter, contemplating Hammer’s beauty, then considering the bold lines of Giacometti’s painting, then returning to Hammer’s still face. Now the film rises above its biographical limitations as though it is struggling right alongside the artist to understand the nature of portraiture itself.