The last time Geoffrey Rush was cooped up on screen in a tatty grey room with a well-spoken man, the result was The King’s Speech, not so much a film as a machine for winning Oscars. Final Portrait, in which Rush plays Alberto Giacometti during the weeks in 1964 that he spent drawing the writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), is a subtler, warmer piece that has few of the earlier one’s imploring, manipulative tendencies. Anyone familiar with movies about artists toiling over their canvases may be minded to bring a cushion to the cinema: Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse ran for four hours, Victor Erice’s leisurely documentary The Quince Tree Sun for nearly two-and-a-half. At 90 minutes, Final Portrait is scarcely more than a doodle by comparison, but that briskness suits its philosophical points.
It begins with a casual request by Giacometti to Lord. Would he consider sitting for a portrait? It should only take a few hours at the artist’s studio in Paris. An afternoon at most. Arriving at the cluttered studio, Lord finds an artist whose idea of an ice-breaker is to tell him he has the head of a brute. He tries to remain chirpy even as Giacometti offers the first hint that the project may be doomed. “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you,” he grumbles. “It’s impossible.”
The director Stanley Tucci (best known as an actor) exploits the satisfying tension between the reassuringly bland, preppy Hammer, and Rush, whose physical appearance suggests the broad strokes of a street artist’s caricature: cigarette poking from his mouth, ash-coloured curls, melted eyes. Though not strictly a two-hander – Clémence Poésy brings some fire as Giacometti’s muse, the prostitute Caroline, while Tony Shalhoub crinkles his face sympathetically as his brother Diego – the film’s faint drama percolates pleasingly during the face-offs between artist and sitter.
Giacometti’s life is glimpsed in revealing shards. His volatile marriage to Annette (Sylvie Testud) is observed by Lord, who witnesses also the dalliances with Caroline, but Tucci doesn’t try to explain these imbroglios. That applies also to the portrayal of Lord, on whose private life we eavesdrop in a series of snatched phone calls to an unseen partner as his stay in Paris is prolonged, first in daily increments and then weekly ones, by Giacometti’s demands. The film drops occasional hints about Lord’s sexuality but there is something refreshing about its refusal to make it his defining characteristic. Even as a potentially cloying odd-couple dynamic emerges between slick aesthete and irascible rogue, the movie hangs back. The emphasis changes from when the portrait will be finished to what Giacometti has to gain by deferring its completion. “It’s like he’s determined to remain completely unsatisfied,” Lord tells Diego. “Not completely,” he replies. “Perfectly.”
Tucci crowds the screen with sculpted heads that seem to be commenting silently on the action. No film that uses an accordion on the soundtrack to tell us we are in France, or a whooshing out-of-focus camera to signal intoxication, can be said to avoid the obvious, but in general this one errs on the side of understatement. Rather than insist upon the artist’s mortality, the picture instead shows him strolling with Lord through Père Lachaise cemetery, where the colour of his raincoat chimes precisely with the grey of the tombstones.
The subject of the movie, as the title suggests, is completion, and the idea that some things (a painting, a life) need to be taken away in order to be declared finished. Giacometti died 18 months after the action of the film occurs. Prolonging a portrait was a way of postponing disappointment, failure, death. We hear him remarking that he cannot pinpoint the moment at which a picture emerges, and something similar happens here, with a film of small lines and gestures adding up imperceptibly to a fine thumbnail sketch, if not quite a portrait. The words of the school teacher in Six Degrees of Separation spring to mind. Asked by a parent what her secret is for transforming her students into infant Matisses, she replies: “Secret? I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”
This article appears in the 16 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear