Final Portrait' makes nice order out of Giacometti's artistic chaos

Rhetorical question: Are eccentricity, a mercurial personality, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcohol and tobacco abuse and domestic chaos prerequisites for all great artists — or just for all films about great artists?

Rhetorical answer: Both, vis-a-vis “Final Portrait,” a beguiling biopic of renowned Swiss sculptor-painter Alberto Giacometti, with more than a little insight into his chaotic artistic process.

On a short trip to Paris in 1964, American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), who’d befriended and written about Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), is asked by him to sit for a portrait. Flattered by the prospect, the writer agrees. It’ll only take an afternoon or two, says the artist.

Famous first words.

'Final Portrait'



  • Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clemence Poesy.
  • Rating: R for language, sexual references and nudity.

At the outset of director Stanley Tucci’s screenplay, adapted from Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait,” Giacometti is chain-smoking, as ever, in his seedy but fabulously atmospheric studio, shuffling around and among hundreds of his sculptures and paintings — long, thin, emaciated figures with shrunken heads, resembling African fetishes — all in various degrees of incompletion. He makes wordless preparations, as though for an operating room, before seating his subject and observing, “You look like a thug — if the police saw you like this, they’d throw you in jail.”

A few minutes later, examining Lord up close, he refines that observation: “Front on, you look like a brute. Sidelong, you look like a degenerate.”

Handsome, impeccably dressed and combed Lord seems bemused rather than offended, even when Giacometti chastises him for changing position or expression. “I don’t know why you’re trying to trick me!”… “Don’t smile!”

The afternoon or two stretches into a week. The portrait “comes and goes.” Each time it looks finished, Giacometti bursts forth with a loud, agonized F-word — obliterating the face, and starting over. Patient Lord keeps changing his plane reservations and departure date. Day 9, 10, 11… This could go on for months.

Or forever.

“I’m dishonest…I’m a liar!” Giacometti wails, self-critical in extremis.

Lord ventures a sober question: “Do you ever think about suicide?”

“Every day,” the artist replies.

Rumpled Rush, that great Australian actor, won an Oscar for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott in “Shine” (1996) and nominations as the therapist in “The King’s Speech” (2010) and the Marquis de Sade in “Quills” (2000). Here, he has his best showcase in years, immersing himself in his role with wildly entertaining abandon, whether at his favorite Cafe Adrien hangout or at home with his long-suffering wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) — furiously jealous of sexy young mistress-whore Caroline (Clemence Poesy), with whom Giacometti is obsessed. Both women are terrific in their parts.

This is the first film Mr. Tucci has directed but doesn’t act in. His fine performances in “The Lovely Bones” and “Julie & Julia” (both 2009) are memorable, even if his terrible Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1999) was not. But his directorial skills are good and getting better. The largely monochromatic black-white-and-gray cinematography is precisely right, and he cleverly substitutes London locales for Paris — with a little CGI help — to accommodate his small budget.

A final factoid or two for those (like me) who are/were only vaguely familiar with the Swiss-born Giacometti (1901-1966), who lived and worked most of his life in Paris: He was influenced by Cubism and Breton’s Surrealist group. He loved Cezanne but found Picasso pretentious, steadfastly developing his own uniquely anorexic style to reflect “the fragility and vulnerability of 20th-century man.” Sartre said a key component of his art was existential fear (what else would Sartre say?), and that Giacometti lived on the edge of an abyss. His ghostly figures got smaller and smaller over the years — most of them less than 3 inches tall — until after World War II, when his most famous tall and skinny creations were fashioned with coarse-grained plaster of Paris on wire frames.

“Final Portrait” is a captivating portrait of a haunted but exhilarating artist and an unlikely friendship between two totally different men, bonding through the blessing and curse of the artistic process.

“There’s no question about the portrait ever being finished,” Giacometti moans at one point, “they’re all unfinished… How can I find a way out of this?”

“You could always just stop,” suggests Lord.

“I can’t stop,” the artist replies.

It will be no spoiler, I hope, to tell you that their problem — and this fairly downbeat biopic — has an unexpectedly and deliciously upbeat ending.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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