SXSW programmers scheduled for its North American premiere Final Portrait the first night of the SXSW Film Festival. Directed by Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait stars Geoffrey Rush as Alberto Giacometti and Armie Hammer as James Lord. The feature focuses on the last days of the world-renowned Swiss sculptor, painter and printer, Alberto Giacometti. Indeed, the film examines eighteen days the zany, brilliant artist attempts to paint his American friend, writer, art aficionado and collector James Lord. When he finished the portrait, Lord returned to America and not long afterward Giacometti died. Ironically, this was his last portrait. Their time together rang with pathos and immutable genius. What they achieved together was remarkable.
Tucci has the knack for the subtly humorous, the wry twist, the attention to details of time, place, space and people’s souls. Indeed, the film examines the internal workings of genius and its appreciation in this exercise in brilliance as Lord sits and watches Giacometti at work. Thus, cinematically, little overt, external action occurs. Instead, we have the opportunity to understand the complexity of the artist confronting the internal immutable and ineffable, while attempting to capture the fluid inexorability of a human spirit on canvas. For Giacometti it remained an impossibility. Fortunate for us, he somehow managed to paint Lord. Lord subtly manipulates his friend toward this end. This is cleverly understated in Rush’s and Hammer’s rendering.
The action becomes internalized. Tucci, the artist, appreciates the ephemeral magic of understanding the production of art. The director illuminates this by pacing Giacometti’s difficulty painting Lord’s portrait. When Lord asks Giacometti to sit for him, Lord anticipated Giacometti would accomplish this in a few days. The encounter stretches into eighteen. From start to finish, the time Lord spends during the process exhilarates, frustrates, entertains, magnifies truth. For the vital, momentous 18 days catapults both into new territory and greatness in themselves. Giacometti exasperates with his achievement to exemplify perfection. His adventure into the labyrinth of depression when he fails again and again occurs internally. He expresses this is in epithets and bruising commentary to Lord. Rush’s depiction of Giacometti is funny, electric, memorable, profound, exacting, mad.
Thanks to Tucci’s exceptional pacing and close-ups of Hammer’s gorgeous face, we move seamlessly back and forth from creative to observer who recognizes the important silence of creation. The mysterious process unfolds with humor and interest. We enjoy the interplay between Giacometti’s internal being and Lord’s always encouraging response, whether one word or three or zero words. Even when Giacometti refers to Lord as having the face of “a brute,” Rush’s delivery and Hammer’s response are impeccable. Tucci’s well chosen cinematographer (Danny Cohen), teases out the inner details of both men. Hammer manages to inflect Lord’s perplexity, writerly concentration and sensitivity in an extremely complex role which he portrays with equal strength to Rush’s unparalleled, convoluted Giacometti.
Hammer’s Lord experiences his friend’s inner chaos, misery and paralysis with good humor, and inscrutable logic. You see, Lord took notes recording Giacometti’s angst and torment as he strained out the portrait. Giacometti’s response to his own work time and again as “shit,” prompts him to begin again, then again. His brother and assistant Diego (the always entertaining Tony Shalhoub), knows his brother and leaves him alone to be a perfectionist. After the thirteenth or so day Lord tries to prompt Diego about getting his brother to finish the process. It’s an impossibility. Giacometti will finish when the portrait completes.
The idea that Giacometti was an artistic runaway train mesmerizes. Tucci highlights this throughout his screenplay which he most probably based on Lord’s memoir A Giacometti Portrait. Obviously, Tucci and his team extensively researched numerous pictures/film of Gicometti’s studio and the environs of his residence in 1964 Paris, his sculptures, Lord’s other Giacometti writings and much more. The attention to detail is noteworthy and crystalizes this amazing artist, his time, his prodigious talents.
The film shines in the design teams’ recreation of Giacometti’s lifestyle and place needed for his artistic genius to arise. The greyish colors and stark lighting of his studio suggest layers of dust covering everything. The art design of his workplace in the most intimate details is magnificent. We even note some of his famous sculptures present. And of course, we appreciate the notion of art for art’s sake. A concept that has been squashed by crass commercialism and marketing today, we appreciate Tucci’s throwback to another time. Whether true or not the 1960s naively embraced the artists’ worthwhile contributions of individuality and being to the world. Were artists venerated more then than now? Perhaps. Regardless, the flies and vultures now swarm and circle.
That Giacometti, unlike Picasso, remained unconcerned about money appears as a romantic notion which Tucci manifests throughout. In one scene he secrets rolls and rolls of cash (two million francs or dollars), in a hiding place in his studio. Not concerned with treasures or conspicuous consumption, his studio and apartment are dingy and look more like the abode of mice families. His wife Annette (sympathetically portrayed by Sylvie Testud), whom he disabuses by shoving his main mistress repeatedly in her presence, dresses like a washerwoman. Even his cheerful mistress Caroline (Clémence Poésy), becomes sick of his niggardly ways and sends her pimps around to collect. She and his wife are his muses. One he has married, the other is a “free” agent. Without her, he cannot finish his portrait of Lord and the going becomes tenuous when Caroline disappears.
The overarching theme that the artist must create in tortured grief and does so regardless of monetary reward is the pinnacle of the film. The theme stamps the artistry of Giacometti that Lord in his book memes for that time, for all time. Indeed, that emblematic portrait of Lord, indistinguishable from the written portrait of Giacometti symbolized in Lord’s book, rings with power and truth. Tucci’s understanding of Giacometti and his attraction to the process and the preternatural 18 days of artistic endeavor is illuminating. Tucci, the actors, the design team and cinematographer have created a segment of artistic life that also rings with power and truth.
Any and every individual with the germ of creative impulse will certainly enjoy this film. For artists, Rush fans and Hammer fans, it is a must-see. Currently, Final Portrait streams online and is in select theaters.