I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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.
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.
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.