With Final Portrait, his fifth feature as director, and his fourth as the screenwriter as well, Stanley Tucci has crafted an actor’s duel that might play well on a stage, pitting his leads in a slow-boil showdown. The mode is comic frustration, the story centered on a reasonable man (played by Armie Hammer) frustrated at the eccentricities of a wild-haired genius (Geoffrey Rush, as the painter Alberto Giacometti). The setting is the master’s Parisian workshop, where American critic James Lord, Hammer’s character, has agreed to sit for a portrait — it would just take a day. Much of the film finds the pair in position, Lord sitting rigidly (complying with the artist’s demands) and glumly (because the project actually takes weeks) while the cantankerous Giacometti sputters and swears behind his easel. Again and again, Giacometti sets Lord’s face to canvas, only to then blot it out and start again. Giacometti says that Lord has the countenance of a brute and that he can’t yet see how to capture it. Many times, over the film’s ninety minutes, Giacometti barks out, “Fuck!” and puts his head in his hands. (Lord wrote of the extended encounter in his 1980 reminiscence, A Giacometti Portrait.)
Lord sits there for many days. Tucci asks us to do so for only ninety minutes, but that, too, proves a bit much. He has taken on one of the trickiest of storytelling challenges: How to make compelling an experience that is, for the most part, a drag? He achieves this, for stretches of the film, by trusting the eyes of his actors, by focusing on how the performers look at each other. Rush squints and fumes, his Giacometti chasing inspiration; Hammer plays a man trying not to look perturbed, trying to embody his purest essence — even as annoyance at the situation becomes that essence. In crisp montage, Tucci shows us arresting close-ups of Hammer’s features, inviting us to imagine along with the process of creation: What would you make of this? Though he captures something of the complex interplay of an artist regarding a human subject, we never quite see how that process results in the specific choices Giacometti makes on his canvas.
For all that looking, the film is often boisterous. Perhaps to relieve us from the premise’s inherent tedium, Tucci sends ancillary characters crashing through the studio: Giacometti’s wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), and favorite prostitute, Caroline (Clemence Poesy), who scrambles about, hilariously, raspberrying her lips in imitation of the car she wants Giacometti to buy. The performances, as always in Tucci’s films (Big Night, Blind Date), are uniformly strong, with Hammer’s straight-man dryness the comic highlight, though all the raucousness seems at times more a distraction than a relief from the central situation. If anything, Tucci doesn’t stew us in the silence of frustrated creation long enough.
Movies about artists have often simplified and romanticized the idea of artistic inspiration, making it a thunderclap of certainty not dissimilar from the moment a detective hero suddenly makes an elusive connection. Here, Tucci wrings some comedy from inspiration’s absence, from the way Lord keeps delaying his flight back to New York out of certainty that, eventually, it will come. The film’s finest moments are its last, which reveal the whole to have been a sort of shaggy dog story. They make clear, with some wit, something that the movies always miss: that inspiration is not all there is to art.
Final Portrait is, in the end, a cheer for craftsmanship. Tucci is attentive to the physical properties of brushstrokes and the painter’s mixing board. Each new camera setup reveals captivating new details of the principal set. Giacometti’s studio is convincing, a cluttered pit of half-finished sculptures and canvases. The leads could be sitting in the hollow of a cinder block. The film captures the outside appearances of an artist at work and then suggests, humbly, that the work inside, the trick of genius, might be so subtle that even the artist can’t detect it.