Imperfection in the pursuit of perfection

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: August 5, 2017 Last modified: August 5, 2017

Final Portrait

Director: Stanley Tucci


He appears as a hunched figure, glasses on face, cigarette one-third spent horizontal between pursed lips. He says very little, shambling across his studio in his grey jacket, his feet dragging. He will stop at a sculpture, clay not dry, and massage it like it is theraputic, like he’s the one receiving the massage. Then he remembers his appointment with the immaculately dressed American man who is awaiting instructions. He gestures him to sit and rearranges his limbs. Crossed legs won’t do, neither will the hands which he positions between his suited model’s legs. Then he takes out a canvas, marks a line on it with his brush and begins. At a certain point, he will verbalise his emotions, loudly with the ‘f’ word.

Final Portrait, adapted from James Lord’s non-fiction book ‘A Giacometti Picture’ by the American actor turned writer-director, Stanley Tucci, depicts the experiences of the author Jim (Armie Hammer) as he sits for the famous sculptor and artist, Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) in his Paris studio in 1964. Jim, an art critic, is flattered to be a model. He anticipates, wrongly, that he will be required for no more than a couple of hours. Dapper and urbane, he does not expect to be characterised as ‘a brute’. ‘When I finish my painting,’ Alberto remarks, ‘you will be arrested’. He does not entirely believe that the artist’s pieces are incomplete either. ‘Paintings used to be finished,’ Alberto tells him. ‘Then along came photography… Now paintings are unfinished.’ Giacometti’s paintings shrink his subjects’ heads and put thick black lines over their faces. The subject is rendered inhuman but not in a comical way. Jim admires Alberto’s work and takes a photograph of the canvas at the end of a session. Alberto is unhappy. He wants Jim to stay for longer. Other domestic dramas come to the fore: Alberto’s tempestuous relationship with his French wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) and his on-off relationship with his prostitute-model-mistress, Caroline (Clémence Poesy), who sits for him and demands that he buy her a motor car.

Most films about artists and models are really about the tension between men and women. Final Portrait is a buddy movie, in which one man submits himself to the will of another as best he can mindful of cramp and the increasing disapproval that the artist experiences in the creative process.

In the leading role, Rush reminds us of the actor who won an Oscar as pianist David Helfgott in the 1996 drama Shine. His is an intensely physical performance. Rush also has to speak French and Italian convincingly. Yet his Alberto is a flighty, slightly comical caricature, throwing money around his studio regardless of its worth; Jim tries to hide it for him, unsuccessfully. Alberto alleges that he is a fraud. He trades in new sketches for his early, un-Giacometti-like work – it’s for his collection – and burns other work that he (mistakenly) thinks was meant for lithographs. As the sketches go up in smoke, he resigns himself to his folly.

The film mostly takes place in Alberto’s studio, recreated in the UK on a Twickenham sound stage. It is a formidable set, decorated with works-in-progress that we marvel at. When Caroline visits him in a particularly vivacious mood, picking up one of Giacometti’s canvases and skipping round the room, we fear for the artwork.

So long as Alberto is painting Jim, a friendship of sorts exists, to the extent that Jim helps Alberto negotiate with Caroline’s two pimps; it is a poor negotiation, with Alberto offering more than is demanded, yet one of the pimps doesn’t want to be too exacting out of respect.

Final Portrait is a slight movie, asking the simple question: how do you get an artist to stop? It skirts over difficult emotions. Annette’s response to her husband’s infidelity is to demand a coat and a dress. It is a tribute to the pursuit of perfection, but is imperfect in itself

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.