THIS IS A small, carefully crafted, nicely written movie about the making of art. The story is centered on Alberto Giacometti’s execution of a portrait of an American writer, James Lord (Armie Hammer who has clearly survived “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Lone Ranger”) whose book of the experience was director Stanley Tucci’s source material. Lord had been assured that his sitting would take two or three days. It took over a month as the obsessed artist painted, erased, painted again and erased again Lord’s face, all the while cursing himself, cursing the canvas, oblivious of Lord’s deadlines. Indeed, oblivious of Lord himself.
Lord may have seen himself as the subject of the painting. But really, he was just its catalyst; mere fodder, like the artist’s mistress, Caroline, and his wife Annette, for Giacometti’s devouring obsessiveness. Tucci (who also wrote the script) offers us a portrait of the artist as a man outside the boundaries of time, of – sensitive – human relationships, of any of the rules and codes of bourgeois life. For the artist, the only relationship that really mattered was the one between himself and the art he was making. He was indifferent to Lord’s needs, to any trace of fidelity to his wife, to her emotional needs, to his mistress, beyond that of ‘muse’ and lover, to money (bags and bags of cash stashed under beds, in attics, wherever), even to himself.
All that mattered was the art.
He was its servant, as much as he assumed that those close to him would be his’.
He may have been a great artist, but (like so many others), this unyielding dedication to his art clearly demanded its own very special kind of relationships…he was a bit of a shit in other words. But as Giacometti, Geoffrey Rush (“a bit of a ham” Tucci calls him) offers up an engaging, otherworldly, unflattering but ultimately, sympathetic portrait. (The meta fiction of an artist creating a portrait of an artist painting one).
The small cast complements and counterbalances Rush’s at times, over-the-top style nicely. Tony Shalhoub is a quiet, solid presence as Giacometti’s brother, Diego, the voice of whispered reason amidst the chaos and clutter of the artist’s studio…and life. As his long-suffering wife, Sylvia Testud evokes a gentle dignity despite her husband’s unthinking assaults on it. And as his mistress and muse Clémence Poésy (so brilliant as the autistic detective in “The Tunnel”) flits in and out of his studio like a glowing fairy (To which you’d be tempted to remind the director that she was after all a whore. Where was the grim reality beneath the glamour?)
There’s not much of a narrative arc in the story, other than the evolution of the portrait from a few dabs of paint to, eventually, the finished object (though the artist felt his art was never really finished). But the world that’s created, due in no small part to James Merifield’s meticulous recreation of Giacometti’s cramped, untidy, shoddy studio and the restless, roving camera work of master cinematographer Danny Cohen (“Florence Foster Jenkins”; “The Danish Girl”), is watchably credible.
The flaw in the movie is that it often feels thin; its shoe-budget financing is often obvious. Tucci felt the need to bring such a degree focus and fat-free precision to his storytelling that as a result there’s no room for interesting asides. I missed the (further) exploration of the nature of observation (hinted at, but underdeveloped), the underlying roots of Lord’s acceptance of Giacometti’s Bohemian lifestyle (He was himself a homosexual fleeing the homophobia of 40’s USA), the tension between Giacometti’s wealth and the seeming poverty of his lifestyle (he wouldn’t buy his wife a new coat, but would lavish money on his mistress) etc.
It’s one of those rare movies that actually comes in just under 90 minutes. Maybe 30 minutes more would have created a more nuanced portrait
FINAL PORTRAIT. Dir: Stanley Tucci. With: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub. Cinematgorapher: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: James Merifield