Film Review: Stanley Tucci’s (2017) Final Portrait

Stanley Tucci’s 2017 film Final Portrait is a difficult, obtuse and blunt profile of James Lord’s book A Giacometti Portrait. Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss-Italian sculptor and painter, is best known for his long, sculpted thin humanoid figures. His portraiture is less well known, at least to those outside the art-world, so Tucci’s project brings to life a moment, a meeting, that critically examines this neurotic, narcissistic and tedious figure. The film is no less tedious than sitting for the neurotic master; in fact, instead of resembling a painting or a sculpture, Tucci’s Final Portrait is more like watching the application of wallpaper. One dimensional characters, needlessly repetitive shots, and poor direction – where is the film going? – remind one of the mind-numbing application of wallpaper. This scene. This scene. Next scene. Roller-brush please? Next scene. The film is flat, monochrome (grey), lacklustre and dreich, although it has one, or two, acceptably decent moments.

Giacometti is a figure that in someway reflects his sculptures; therefore, he overshadows his own paintings. Sitting for a portrait that was meant to take an afternoon, which for James Lord becomes a situation akin to Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot, the process drags on for weeks. At the beginning of encountering Giacometti’s whining solipsistic nihilism, Lord, played by the handsome Armie Hammer, asks “So what we are doing is meaningless?” Retorting to Lord’s question, Giacometti, who is competently played by film veteran Geoffrey Rush, adds, “and impossible.” Quite, this film would likewise be meaningless and impossible to watch if it were not for a few good lines, some good cinematography, Danny Cohen, and passable costume design, Liza Bracey. Besides this, we are dealing with the implementation and execution of a film that matches that of a middling student filmmaker. Buoyed by talented cast and crew, the entire project treads water.

During his lifetime, Lord’s homosexuality remained a private matter, however, there is one telling, and clever, scene in the film. Giacometti’s muse and inamorata, Caroline (Clémence Poésy) sneaks up on Lord in a busy bar and cafe, giving him a surprise kiss; she asks “Did I frighten you? Did you get excited?” and he replies, “Well I did, until I realized it was a woman.” Apart from a few scenes like this, the film plods along, never really able to take flight. We are given a view of mid-1960s Paris (ironically filmed in London, with the use of CGI, because of costs), yet the delineation price is high. Tucci fails to pay. Giacometti is unsympathetic; he is emotionally and financially abusive towards his wife, Annette Arm, who is deftly played by Sylvie Testud. Giacometti even, in a remarkable passage, states, that he used to fantasize about killing women to put himself to sleep when he was young, but not before mentally raping them. Lord asks nervously, “And this relaxed you?”

Alberto Giacometti’s Portrait of James Lord / 1964 / Courtesy:

Throughout various sittings, Giacometti calls Lord’s visage that of a brute and a degenerate; Lord takes the abuse in good spirit. Giacometti, fixated on himself cannot seem to get out of the psychological mire he is in. Flush with cash, which he receives in huge stacks of francs and refuses to deposit in a bank, he lives in a kind of bourgeois squalor. A dusty, molding and old studio that is connected by a outer, open-air corridor to his living quarters; further along the corridor and up some stairs, his brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) lives upstairs, near a cottonwood tree. A man-child, Giacometti’s “intensity” (Lord’s word), comes out in cries, shouts and expletives in front of the canvas. I found the film saddening, as the women are treated like wallpaper, muses and presented without any power. Caroline’s ability to get money out of the old man comes at a cost, she is controlled by pimps, and her spending is Annette’s poverty. In a moving scene, Annette asks for money to purchase some new clothing; her clothes are obviously threadbare, yet Giacometti refuses calling her a trite bourgeois. Meanwhile, he has purchased Caroline a new car. Women are not creators in Tucci’s limited world of homosociality, whereby Alberto, Diego and James make a masculine trio, world, although we know women were creators in 1960’s Paris, and they could be presented as such.

Venice Woman IX 1956 by Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966
Alberto Giacometti / Venice Woman IX / 1956 / Courtesy:

Whilst it is important to present events as they were, there is always an angle, a depiction, a possibility of moving the viewer otherwise than is known. I have been moved so. After watching this film and reviewing some of Giacometti’s works, I see a psychodynamic aspect: an insecure boy’s need to pair-down the autochthonous woman, the need to make thin, fragile and alone his female models, which he molds into anemic figuration(s) seemingly near death. All the better to control in a world where one is replete with resentment, shown in various scenes of where he is angered by the works and celebrity of Marc Chagall, of Pablo Picasso, etc. Interestingly, Lord, who finds the process of sitting for Giacometti maddening (a feeling echoed by Annette), manages to trick the old master into settling for a semi-finished painting. A man of means, Lord, unlike the the women muses can leave and publicly and creatively profit from his encounter. In the final analysis, either Tucci has created a terrible manifestation of Giacometti’s worst aspects, that of the drunken, rambling, capricious man-child who treats his wife like an inflamed appendix, or the actual Giacometti was really like this. I am hopeful it is the former. Perplexing puerile thoughts from Tucci, along with his torpid directing, reveal a lack of intellectual depth, “I love Giacometti. I love his work and work ethic and how articulate he was about the creative process. He was extraordinary”  (Evening Standard, August 2017). Really?

Suggestion for Tucci: Go. Back. To. Acting.

Christie’s has an interesting narration with original photography from the James Lord sitting here.

. . .

Featured Image (Final Portrait) Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer as Alberto Giacometti and James Lord, Courtesy:

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