The meandering film “Final Portrait” could have been a bit more focused if it was titled “Draw me like one of your French boys.” Then, magically, some of the much-needed intimacy and visual splendor of the drawing scene from “Titanic” might have latched itself onto Stanley Tucci’s flick, saving it from complete plot shipwreck. Detailing artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and his attempts to complete a painting of writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), “Final Portrait” is a labor of love from Stanley Tucci that doesn’t quite capture the emotion or conflict of its central subjects.
The film starts off with a voice over narration from Lord, setting the scene for the arduous painting process that is about to unfold. He tells us the year is 1964, the locale is Paris, and Lord has been chosen as Giacometti’s latest portrait subject. Lord is sculpted from a burly frame and a fair face, while Giacometti is hunched and weathered, his hair as grey as the cigarette ash littered over his studio floor.
Then the painting starts. Lord sits still and upright in his chair as Giacometti adds strokes to the canvas, humorously yelling a profanity here and there out of frustration. But what should have been a short two-day process gets delayed by Giacometti’s unsatisfied, artistic temperament. Lord has to rearrange travel plans, and Giacometti must stop his love for the colorful prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) and his grey-feeling wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) from blending on his heart’s easel.
As Lord’s agitation swells over Giacometti’s lack of progress, so does our own as “Final Portrait” drifts aimlessly to no satisfying conclusion. Aside from the intrigue from this being Giacometti’s final portrait, there is little to no conflict driving the plot. Lord has to deal once with a tense telephone call with a lover back home, and except for inconvenient but manageable flight change fees, there are no outside forces threatening to stop him from sitting back in Paris for a while.
Giacometti’s artistic challenges are meant to be the central conflict, but when its revealed just how much money is literally hidden under the artist’s bed, it’s hard for us to take his painting plight seriously. When the movie occasionally turns to farce, like when Caroline drives Lord and Giacometti across Paris, the humor never shines as brilliantly as their red, glistening BMW convertible.
“Final Portrait’s” lack of conflict is the direct result of the movie’s inconsistent narration. Occasionally, Lord will detail certain events of certain days, intended to provide more story exposition while reminding us that what we witness is from his point of view. What happens instead is “Final Portrait’s” sense of time becomes obstructed through this narration, pushing us further away from these characters. It’s hard to fault Tucci too much on this: Whether his screenplay had constant narration for each day or no narration at all, it would have felt like lazy writing and storytelling none-the-less. His attempt to intersperse narration is admirable. but sadly falls flat.
This narration also makes James Lord an uninteresting character, despite Hammer’s thoughtful performance and Lord being quite encapsulating in real life. Even when he complains, Lord is still always polite. He has nowhere to be and nothing to do except to plop down in this chair and be gazed upon by Giacometti. Occasionally, Lord reveals his thoughts about the process to the artist’s much wiser and saner brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub). Diego then confesses interesting truths about Giacometti to Lord, making us wonder why this movie wasn’t told from Diego’s perspective, since he has been watching the whole time. That way we could have an outside perspective into what makes Lord really tick.
Another way this movie could have been better portrayed is through the perspectives of Caroline and Annette, two women at opposite ends of Giacometti’s emotional spectrum. The characters are crafted well enough thanks to Poesy and Testud’s commendable performances, and watching this story from more than one point of view would only attest to Lord’s appreciation of cubist art.
Regardless of how this story might have been better told, Tucci still succeeds in his directorial approach. His confident frame placement features unexpected wobbles from the camera, reminiscent of how even the most talented artists in history had their original viewpoints challenged. Frequent shots of women in glass or mirrors reflect both the clear and distorted perceptions of their male overseers. And a sequence of Armie Hammer diving into a pool and dissolving into cream colored paint is a beautiful representation of his symbolic brush being cleansed in the midst of this dreadful, artistic process.
Rush still remains the best part of the movie as Giacometti, capturing the eccentricity and bleak whimsy of the self-beleaguered painter. But the cast’s formidable acting front and Tucci’s powerful direction aren’t able to transform “Final Portrait” into meaningful art.