A Tucc of class
The low-key, chamber play-like Final Portrait is the fifth feature film directed by character actor Stanley Tucci, although it’s only his first since 2007. Tucci does not possess an enormous body of work as a director, but it’s big enough now to pick out some auteur tendencies: he is obviously interested in the creative process (Big Night) as well as performance and deception (The Imposters and Joe Gould's Secret), and he favors intimate, actor-friendly stories (Blind Date).
All those elements come into play in Final Portrait, an intimate, actor-friendly film focused on the creative process, with a story ultimately resolved by performance and deception. Set in 1964 Paris (cue the jaunty concertina music), Final Portrait stars Geoffrey Rush as Swiss-Italian painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti, with Armie Hammer co-starring as American writer James Lord (the script was adapted by Tucci from Lord's book).
When the longtime friends run into each other in Paris, Alberto asks James to sit for a portrait, promising that it will only take a day or two at the most. Instead, the process stretches on for several weeks, with James delaying his flight back home while the procrastinating and pathologically self-doubting Alberto repeatedly paints over an entire day's labor (despite the difficult birth, the resulting portrait is considered one of Giacometti's last major works).
The bulk of Final Portrait consists of these posing sessions in Alberto's studio, with John motionlessly observing what seems like a chaotic process, while also occasionally sneaking a stretch when the artist isn't looking. Without pontificating or underlining any point too aggressively, Tucci creates a patient and thoughtful portrait of an artist at work, one that considers the pain, anxiety, confusion and excitement that comes from creation.
As the sessions stack up and they spend more time together, James only grows more conflicted about Alberto, a man who proves as erratic as he is exacting. Alberto provokes James, smokes cigarettes nonstop, cavalierly destroys his own art, treats his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) like garbage while spending a fortune on a prostitute (Clémence Poésy) and frequently blows off painting sessions to drink wine. But there are also moments of pure genius that prevent James from totally distrusting the process.
Geoffrey Rush is well-cast as Alberto—he's not an actor needs to be encouraged to overact, but the role still equips him with a full arsenal of affectations. Of course, the best performance in Final Portrait comes from longtime Tucci collaborator Tony Shalhoub, virtually unrecognizable as Alberto's overshadowed brother Diego. Unlike Rush, Shalhoub adjusts the temperature of his ham to each individual film.
Unfortunately, a typically wooden Hammer isn't quite right for the role of James. Even though Final Portrait is narrated by James and framed through his point-of-view, he mostly acts like a withdrawn observer, and the script doesn't give us a lot of personal details to go on. Those details should have come through in Hammer's performance, but he does a little more here than pose.