Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait, based on the memoir A Giacometti Portrait by American author James Lord, is an actor’s film. It is not, however, an actors’ film. It presents a slice of life from the twilight years of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, played by Geoffrey Rush with the fierce intelligence and calculated physical abandon that characterize his best performances. The actor steals every scene he’s in, to the point where he overshadows everything and everyone around him. The film is in effect a de facto one-man showcase for Rush’s virtuosic embodiment of Giacometti.
Final Portrait focuses on the great artist’s seemingly interminable effort to paint Lord’s (Armie Hammer) portrait, a process that Rush brings to life with a fascinating mixture of physical strength and psychological agitation. Throughout the film, Tucci contrasts Giacometti’s exuberance and incorrigible childishness with Lord’s staid reserve and subdued disapproval of the artist’s extravagant, self-centered existence in Paris. Lord is the immobile center of Giacometti’s constantly revolving world—in essence, the straight man to the lustful, self-loathing, and self-aggrandizing Giacometti.
There are hints of Lord’s ambivalence toward Giacometti scattered throughout Tucci’s screenplay, but Hammer’s reactions to the artist’s increasingly indefensible behavior never rise above mild peevishness. Lord might be the blank canvas that Giacometti’s tormented imagination molds into art, but Hammer—like every other actor in the film—is merely an empty vessel for Rush’s tortured soliloquies and extroverted soul-searching. While Giacometti is Final Portrait’s subject, Lord is its de jure protagonist, spending the most time on screen. Perhaps he’s the bland, American framing device that Tucci feels he needs to contextualize Giacometti’s Parisian world.
As seen through Lord’s eyes, the dramas and passions on display throughout the film come off as melodramas and grotesqueries. This is because Lord as an observer never goes beneath the surface of what he sees. This is most evident in a scene involving a couple of very professional, businesslike pimps, who own Giacometti’s girlfriend and favorite model, Caroline (Clémence Poésy). The seemingly matter-of-fact way in which Giacometti arranges for Caroline’s services reveals that Lord, and by extension the audience, hasn’t fully understood the various depths and emotions at play in the transaction. Lord finds nothing at all amiss in this business deal except for the exorbitant sum that Giacometti pays. One is forced to postulate the ambivalence and ambiguities of Giacometti’s feelings during the meeting, whereas all that Lord sees is a bohemian cad who lives in complete disregard of bourgeois convention and other people’s needs and emotions. Lord’s lack of insight keeps the audience at his own shallow level of understanding.
Lord is like Alice in Wonderland, except that he seems bored with the topsy-turviness of boho Paris. In every scene, Hammer gives the impression of wanting to be elsewhere. He doesn’t take the time to really look at world and art before him, unlike the real-life Lord, who in his book peered deeply into Giacometti’s work and outlook to produce an insightful work of art criticism.