‘I don’t know if I work in order to do something, or in order to know why I can’t do what I want to do.’ – Alberto Giacometti
Too often biographical films about artists applaud their subject’s vision and tortured lives. They usually show how they overcome personal or contextual problems before going on to be immortalised in their work. The conclusion is usually an affirmation of their unique genius. In a way that aptly reflects Final Portrait’s eccentric subject- the Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti- Stanley Tucci is dissatisfied with a conventional narrative, neat structure and warm adoration. While conveying obviously the artist’s futile struggle with self-doubt, this is merely the broadest brush-stroke in Tucci’s otherwise muted, finely detailed picture. The writer-director has instead made one of the most amusing, perplexing and yet inspired biopics that I’ve seen in recent years.
The film opens in Paris, 1964 with American biographer James Lord (Armie Hammer) narrating that he once met Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) at one of his exhibitions and invited to pose for his next portrait. The opening shot that dissolves from black could almost have been a curtain pulling back on a theatre-stage: two men held flatly by the camera on opposite sides of a stark white gallery. Lord is clean-shaven, upright and optimistic while Giacometti, hunched-over, despondent, dying cigarette (the first of very, very, many) clenched in his mouth with his protruding bottom lip. From the outset, Tucci creates a Beckettian isolation for these two men as they are trapped in the seemingly ‘impossible’ task of finishing the portrait (Tucci could have renamed the film Waiting for Giacometti). It begins in earnest when Lord goes to model for what he imagines will only be two hours in the ramshackle atelier. What actually follows is an eighteen-day arduous journey into the artist’s temperamental, irreconcilable process. A looping nightmare of angst, self-loathing, procrastination, inebriation and the occasional peep into Giacometti’s messy private life with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) and mistress Caroline (Clémence Poésy).
‘His mood is pervasive’ the long-suffering Lord tells Alberto’s brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) after Giacometti curses violently and repeatedly ‘Oh fuccck-a!’ at the portrait, drops his head into his hands and sulks. And that’s when he even sits with his grubby paint tubes and dirty easel. Tucci with cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer James Merrifield not only recreate Giacometti’s studio with precise detail, but the film’s early inky grey, like the blotchy backgrounds of his portraits, and pasty white of his drying sculptures, draws you into his mindset. The trepidation and the difficulty in trying to catch and express what he sees is all in Tucci’s camera-work- the off-kilter focus on Hammer, then cutting back to Rush’s spindly fingers hovering the paintbrush just above the canvas- trying to capture his model with enormous effort.
The often arduous process of artistic creation is not given romantic, uplifting music (Tucci restrains Evan Lurie’s jaunty, at times wistful, score), but muffled quiet in the torturous waiting for that occasional drop of inspiration. It’s often followed with defeat and retiring to a local bistro. However specific this might be to Giacometti and his mercurial attitude in the artistic process, I could also recognise the painful moment when staring at the blank page before you- willing the words, wondering how long something, anything, will come out with some substance. With subtlety, Tucci provides us with a confronting truth in artistic creation- that at the end of the day, after all the distractions and pretensions- its just you and the work. Alone. Tucci develops this further, channelling Samuel Beckett again, with absurdist philosophising. In the end, the work itself might be ‘successful’, it might create or enhance the status of the artist- but this can lead to further, gnawing doubts. Why carry on? Yet how can the artist stop? Crucially, what real meaning does it have?
Tucci gives equal weight to both artist and model’s perspectives in this futile endeavour and both Rush and Hammer are perfectly matched as opposites. Of course, Rush is no stranger to portraying seemingly brilliant if suffering, even jaded artists in his career (after Shine and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. His grey wiry-haired, volatile, curmudgeonly performance makes Giacometti contemptible though begrudgingly admirable as a person. His strolls with Hammer through the Parisian cemetery can be as insightful, as they are hilarious (Picasso- ‘a thief’ according to Giacometti). Hammer initially shows a calm, patient presence, though we come to share in his growing exasperation and sense of doom that this endeavour will never end. It isn’t easy to stand next to Rush’s volatile, domineering character-acting (even when he shuffles around, shadow-like, in the background of the studio) but Hammer holds his own with some considerable charm and grace.
The supporting cast are also wonderfully prominent here, less Giacometti’s stalk-like sculptures than more realised figures with their own part to play. Testud gives a sympathetic performance shifting from warm, amused persona to punctured, pitiable hurt as she bears the neglect and disgust of her husband. Poésy’s Caroline is perhaps less developed, but she brings out the devil-may-care attitude that gives a disconcerting edge in the marital strife that Lord is awkwardly witness to. Even Monk’s Shalhoub gets some fantastically droll lines (hear what he has to say on John le Carre) though provides Hammer with an ear, however ambivalent, to his frustrations.
As Lord begins to recognise Giacometti’s pattern of creation and destruction, a self-defeating revision, we come to understand that Tucci’s revolving narrative is refusing to provide the completed article. The conclusion might be odd, abrupt, unsatisfying but is wholly appropriate. By eschewing the biopic formula, Tucci has instead allowed Giacometti’s strange worldview, and Lord’s intrigue of it, to come out in Final Portrait. His ability to appreciate rather than applaud Giacometti makes for a rather more compelling, if incomplete, portrait of the man. Perhaps limited by Lord’s testimony and though Giacometti’s psyche seems splattered in the aesthetic, we don’t get to really enter into and fully understand the artist himself. However, where I initially believed that Tucci was trying to do something obvious in Final Portrait- his great surprising success lies in capturing something else entirely. I’m sure Giacometti, however wearingly, would approve.