Alberto Giacometti is immortalized on the 100 Swiss Franc note. He also currently holds the record for the highest auction price received for a work of sculpture—$126 million for L’Homme au doight (Pointing Man). In today’s art world, these are the highest measures of success, but like many true artists, Giacometti was plagued by self-doubt. In fact, his particularly neurotic artistic sensibility made it quite a protracted business to sit for Giacometti as a model, as an American art critic learns for himself in Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
In 1964, James Lord was already one of the foremost experts on Giacometti’s work and something of a personal friend. Naturally, he is quite flattered when the revered Swiss artist asks Lord to sit for him. It will just be two days Giacometti assures him. It certainly will not conflict with his flight back to New York at the end of the week. However, as Giacometti obsessively obliterates and re-paints the portrait, Lord reluctantly agrees to repeatedly reschedule his flight, at no small expense. While growing increasingly impatient for Giacometti to finish, Lord nonetheless finds himself drawn into Giacometti’s exclusive world, observing the weird dynamics of Giacometti’s relationship with his wife Annette and on-call call-girl Caroline, while forging a fast friendship with Giacometti’s sculptor brother Diego.
Final Portrait is not exactly the meatiest film ever produced, but it is intoxicatingly nostalgic and sophisticated, like a glass of Pernod at a vintage Parisian café. Frankly, it certainly looks like there were worse fates than getting delayed in Paris circa 1964. (Indeed, Lord only protests intermittently, since among other things, it allows him to attend the press unveiling of Marc Chagall’s Paris Opera ceiling).
Geoffrey Rush might be experiencing a bit of PR turbulence right now, but there is not denying he is an eerie physical match for Giacometti. The artist’s eccentricities and insecurities are also perfect for the actor who made his reputation playing David Helfgott, Inspector Javert, Peter Sellers, the Marquis de Sade, and the King’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue. You can see pieces of them all in Giacometti, but Rush gives him a charm of his own that allows the audience to fully get why Lord keeps sitting for him (frankly, we don’t understand why he wanted to leave in the first place, but so be it).
Armie Hammer bears a similarly strong likeness to Lord. He is quite tall in the role, but he also nicely balances Lord’s youthful enthusiasm and Eastern reserve. Plus, it is nice to see a member of the hardscrabble Armand Hammer clan finally make good. This is the first film Tucci directed that he does not also appear in, but his alter-ego Tony Shalhoub is present and accounted for. In fact, Shalhoub is quite invaluable grounding the film and injecting some gentle humor as Diego Giacometti. In contrast, Clémence Poésy does little to elevate the stock character of Caroline.
Light like a blonde roast coffee, Final Portrait is low on stress, but unusually inviting, with credit also due to Evan Lurie’s lithe, French café society-appropriate music. This should be a film MoMA eventually revives from time to time, because their regular membership would enjoy it as much as the film program patrons. Recommended for those who appreciate fine art and fine living, Final Portrait opens this Friday (3/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.