In 1964, artist Alberto Giacometti painted writer James Lord’s portrait, and an intended afternoon-long sitting stretched into a nearly three-week process, due to the self-doubt for which the artist was notorious.
Opening Friday at the Clay, “Final Portrait,” written and directed by Stanley Tucci and starring an enormously entertaining Geoffrey Rush, chronicles these sessions.
Tucci, whose filmmaking credits include the impressive “Big Night,” has adapted Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait” into a chamber dramedy that could almost be called “Surviving Giacometti.”
The setting is Paris, where Giacometti (Rush), the Swiss artist known for his obsessively whittled sculptures suggesting existential dread and modern alienation, is living and working.
He invites his American writer friend James Lord (Armie Hammer) to pose for a painting, saying the process will take only a few hours.
Lord, neatly dressed, arrives at Giacometti’s shabby, cluttered studio. Quickly, the neuroses spill out.
“I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you,” Giacometti tells Lord. “You have the face of a brute,” the artist says.
Giacometti states that paintings cannot be finished and that portrait painting, in the photography age, is meaningless.
Frustrated with his progress, which he views as no progress, he tells Lord to come back the next day.
Such behavior continues over 18 sessions, interrupted by trips to a cafe and by appearances by Giacometti’s neglected wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), and a prostitute called Caroline (Clemence Poesy), the artist’s model-mistress-obsession.
Diego Giacometti (Tony Shalhoub), Alberto’s more functional brother, who maintains a studio upstairs, also drops by occasionally.
While not without an occasional mini drama, like an encounter with Caroline’s pimps, the action consists almost entirely of Giacometti’s continued unsettling dynamics.
Tucci generates little dramatic momentum and doesn’t substantially explore emotional and external factors that drive Giacometti to create his distinctive art; the film pales next to “Mr. Turner,” “Lust for Life” or “Seraphine” as a character portrait.
The odd-couple potential of the Giacometti-Lord friendship also fares weakly.
Tucci lets Rush dominate the movie, and Hammer’s Lord is reduced to a bland straight man. The use of voiceover to represent Lord’s thoughts is no substitute for what should be lively interactions.
Yet at the same time, Rush’s huge, colorful performance makes the movie one of the most entertaining tempestuous-artist biodramas you’ll ever see. His Giacometti is a rumpled, ranting, stomping, fretting, swearing force of personality who keeps the repetitive sessions from losing steam.
Tucci impresses in depicting Giacometti’s creative process. Viewer feel like they’re watching the artist struggling, via paints, brushes and Rush’s Swiss-accented take on the f-word, to put truth on canvas.
The screenplay features material bound to amuse art lovers. Funniest is Giacometti describing Picasso as an “insecure” style “thief.”
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Sylvie Testud, Clemence Poesy
Written and directed by: Stanley Tucci
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes