Final Portrait movie review: the not-so-fine making of fine art

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Final Portrait green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A bleakly funny, genteelly twisted gloss on the clichés of temperamental creative genius, via the relationship between an artist and his subject, one that questions the sometimes high personal price of great art.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

In Paris in 1964, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, Gods of Egypt) invites a friend, American journalist James Lord (Armie Hammer: Call Me by Your Name, Cars 3), to sit for a portrait. Lord is about to fly home to New York in a few days, but Giacometti promises that this favor to him will require “two to three hours, an afternoon at the most.”

Spoiler (not really): it takes quite a bit longer than that.

Geoffrey Rush is a crotchety delight as the self-described “neurotic” artist who proclaims that his work is meaningless even as he is making it.

Writer-director Stanley Tucci’s (The Imposters), well, portrait of how the friendship between the always irascible Giacometti and the usually unflappable Lord is tested during this time starts out as a bleakly funny gloss on the clichés of temperamental creative genius: Rush is a crotchety delight as the self-described “neurotic” artist who proclaims that portraiture is “meaningless… and impossible” (even as he engages in the form) since photography became a thing, and despairs that his work is never finished, even stuff that he’s shown publicly. Director and actor play the artist’s self-doubt, even at this late stage of a hugely successful career, as part of the bitter humor; Rush’s constant anguished refrain of “Oh fuck!” as he sits at the canvas is funnier than it might have been. But there is also sly irony in it: any creative person, no matter how successful — including, I am certain, Tucci and Rush — can give in to insecurity about their own talents, and if Portrait doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Giacometti and his wildly swinging moods, it certainly has a touch of self-deprecation to it. Among other of the film’s aspects, the grays of its palette, echoing the clay of Giacometti’s studio and the paints of his canvas, seem to speak to a certain misery of spirit.

The near-farce of Portrait’s first half, though, slowly morphs into something almost genteelly warped. The artist reveals some startling violent fantasies to his subject, and the subject — suffering from the “physical and psychological strain” of posing — seems to get infected with Giacometti’s capriciousness and cruelty. Is his art worth this pain to everyone around him? His wife, Annette Arm (Sylvie Testud), takes the brunt of it, as he ignores her in favor of his prostitute mistress, Caroline (Clémence Poésy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, In Bruges). Only his brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub: Pain and Gain, Movie 43), seems immune, but then again, he’s another artist. Is his art worth his subject turning on the people waiting for him back in New York? As Lord postpones his flight again and again, his calls home to announce the delays become increasingly unpleasant to the unseen and unheard significant other down the telephone line, as he defends the notion that the art must take priority over everything else.

Shit. It’s all shit...
Shit. It’s all shit…

Must it? It’s left to you to make that decision for yourself. We see the portrait of Lord taking shape through many iterations here, and you can see the actual painting at the web site of Christie’s. (The auction house says it’s “among the best known of [Giacometti’s] works on canvas.”) You can read the memoir Lord wrote about this experience, which surely influenced but is not the sole source of Tucci’s script. Perhaps Tucci’s uniquely cinematic take on this singular moment in the artist’s history — it was one of his last works before his death in 1966 — will help you decide. Tucci’s script might almost work as a mostly two-man stage play, but how he deploys the camera’s perspective could only be done on film. The camera gets so close on Hammer’s unnaturally still face as he poses, but this isn’t a replication of human intimacy, as a filmic closeup usually represents: Rush’s Giacometti is sitting across the studio and doesn’t have this view of his subject. At least not visually. As the painter translates what he sees into impressionistic brushstrokes on the canvas, Tucci’s eye — wielded by cinematographer Danny Cohen’s (Victoria & Abdul, The Program) camera — is Giacometti’s imaginary one. “You have the head of a brute,” he tells his subject. (The handsome Hammer — he’s not a bad stand-in for the handsome Lord — doesn’t look like a brute to us.) But Lord also shouldn’t worry about this because “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you.” What value does his interpretation of Lord have, then?

The eternal question of all art, then, is here in Final Portrait: What’s it for? What does it mean? Does it mean anything at all? Wisely, Tucci declines to presume he has any answers.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Allen W
Allen W
Thu, Jan 11, 2018 4:05pm

Typo alert: “the usually unflappable Ford”.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Allen W
Fri, Jan 12, 2018 9:52pm

Where’s the typo?

Allen W
Allen W
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jan 12, 2018 10:53pm

“Ford” for “Lord”.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Allen W
Sun, Jan 14, 2018 5:49pm

Oh, of course! Fixed it. Thanks!