Used up your vacation days? The news got you burned out, battered and blue? Well, let director Stanley Tucci offer this balm for frayed nerves, whisking you off to France with the amiable, shaggy-dog of a film that is “Final Portrait.” The story of artist Alberto Giacometti towards the end of his life, the film is less a biopic than it is a long ramble with an engaging eccentric, all set in Paris, 1964.
If this sounds appealing and oddly familiar, hey, you’re right on both counts. With his fifth directorial feature, Tucci returns to territory he previously explored with his 2000 outing, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Both films tell of the relationship between a young writer and an older oddball, treading lightly on narrative to instead focus on the textures, settings and details that make up the older man’s vie bohème. Swap out Greenwich Village of the ’40s for the Left Bank 20 years down the line, and you’ve got two films that rather neatly fit on top of each other — though if anything, this latter film has an even more threadbare approach to plot.
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Armie Hammer plays James Lord, an American novelist invited to sit with the acclaimed artist (Geoffrey Rush) – still more wildly renown as a sculptor – and have his portrait drawn. The session is only due to last one afternoon, as the young writer is due back in New York any day now, but you know what they about best-laid plans. Especially when those plans are made with restless, self-doubting perfectionist. And so one session turns into three weeks, as the mercurial artist works in fits and starts, obsessing over details and painting over the nearly finished work to start it all over again, and the young writer must keep on rescheduling his flight. All the while, Giacometti’s wife (Sylvie Testud), mistress (Clémence Poésy), and brother (a droll Tony Shalhoub, who else?) drift in and out of the studio, bringing with them the chaos and comedy of life.
And that’s about it! The 18 different studio sittings are interrupted by the occasional walk down the block, through the Montparnasse cemetery and into the grungy local bistro. Tucci is generous with his cast, either shooting them in long, seemingly improvisational takes, or in tightly held close-ups, the kinds that totally fill his widescreen compositions. He gives the art-making process the same movie star treatment, often using those extreme close-ups to show paint being mixed, clay being modeled and brushes gliding across a canvas. They lend the film a deeply tactile quality, a reminder that before they end up rarified galleries or behind panes of glass, some of the great pieces of art are forged by dirty hands in dirty studios that often belong to dirty people.
It is therefore fitting that this film about surfaces never tries to get below those of its two leads. Apart from an offhand reference to his sexuality, we never learn a thing about Hammer’s James Lord. He is the ultimate square-jawed American in Paris, a subject of the film’s gaze as much as the artist’s. Buried beneath a bushel of hair, a cigarette constantly hanging off his lips and his shoulders cast downward in a permanent, existential shrug, Rush’s Giacometti resembles some uncanny mix of the real man himself and a caricature of him. It is a caricature that he very much plays up, at one point punctuating a sequence where the manic artist bounds around his studio throwing piles of money at the wall with the ironic, self-aware wink: “I don’t know — I’m neurotic!”
What you see is truly what you get in “Final Portrait.” There’s not much in terms of theme or message other than “art takes time, the French got style, and Armie Hammer can really pull off a suit.” But then, that’s exactly what Tucci is going for.
Working with “The King’s Speech” and “The Danish Girl” cinematographer Danny Cohen, Tucci paints this world entirely in greyscale, crafting a visual aesthetic heavily reminiscent of French street photography of the era. Indeed, it is no chance of luck that our most endearing photos of the real Giacometti were shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the leading figures of that movement. Though the film is all surface, that surface is precisely the point. Watching “Final Portrait,” you get the feeling as if a Robert Doisneau photo had opened itself up you, and for an hour and half, invited you inside. As a bit of art-house escapism, that it is a trip well worth taking.
“Final Portrait” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.