John Serba is a film critic, unapologetic dad thrasher and writer of words. He's based in grand rapids, mi, but his mind occupies various pop cultural niches.

'Final Portrait': An incomplete, by design, portrait of a portrait artist

'Final Portrait': An incomplete, by design, portrait of a portrait artist


Portraits are never finished, insists Alberto Giacometti in “Final Portrait.” That’s a warning and a threat directed at James Lord, his latest subject, who promises to pose for an afternoon, but soon finds the ordeal stretched out over weeks.

That’s what one has to do, I guess, when you’re gifted with the company of a 20th-century master. Geoffrey Rush plays Giacometti as an incorrigible man vulnerable to his impulses, an unfinished sculpture of a man of great charisma and eccentricity. Notably, the Swiss-born sculptor and painter’s own portrait ended up on the 100 Swiss franc banknote, and his works subsequently have sold for tens, and occasionally hundreds, of millions of dollars.

That’s why Lord, played by Armie Hammer, canceled many a flight home to New York to sit uncomfortably in a chair for hours and days as Giacometti coarsely, and maybe affectionately, insulted his features: “Front-on, you’re a brute. Side-on, you’re a degenerate,” he says, smearing black paint on his palette. Lord is patient, until he’s not - he’s only human. An author of note, Lord would eventually become Giacometti’s biographer, a title that makes him a portrait artist as well, albeit with words.

The film, written and directed by the same Stanley Tucci we know as a gifted character actor, eventually becomes a portrait of the portrait artist, and more than just a dramatization of their interactions for a few weeks in Paris, 1964. Superficially, the movie is a glimpse into Giacometti’s process, which entails uncomfortable silences shattered by blurted expletives as Lord sits uncomfortably still. Sometimes, Giacometti puts his own face in his hands for a few minutes at a time, as if suppressing pain, or letting it pass; meanwhile, we can all but feel Lord’s muscles stiffening.

“Final Portrait” repeats this instance many times, interspersed with moments of interpersonal drama witnessed by Lord. Giacometti is his own worst enemy, and many of his actions are those of self-sabotage: literally hiding millions of francs in cash somewhere in his studio so he can’t find them again, for instance. He battles bitterly with his wife, Annette Arm (Sylvie Testud), heartbroken because he continues philandering with another of his portrait subjects, a young prostitute named Caroline (Clemence Poesy).

So, yes, this is a portrait of a tortured artist. Self-tortured, specifically. In a revealingly glib moment, Lord asks Giacometti if he thinks about suicide, and the answer is yes, every day. “Death must be a fascinating experience,” Giacometti says, adding that immolation would be a very dramatic way to go. Self-immolation, specifically.

Of course, Giacometti’s insistence that portraits are never finished is proved true on a metaphysical level. The film lends credence to the idea that an artist’s work is never completed, only abandoned. Especially a portrait, because even as Lord sits with a complicated facial expression of sadness, concern and anger, we sense that the essence of a person is always in motion, even when the body is in stasis.

Giacometti says painting portraits are “meaningless and impossible” since the invention of photography, but he does them anyway, perhaps merely out of compulsion. One could argue that a snapshot captures a moment, not a person, and that Giacometti’s work is noble in its attempt to understand the soul. Maybe moving pictures are better at capturing an evolving character; of course, those have to end, too, and the best ones don’t necessarily conclude satisfactorily, but abandon their subjects, leaving us to envision their continuing lives.


‘Final Portrait’


MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual references and nudity

Cast: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush, Clemence Poesy, Tony Shalhoub

Director: Stanley Tucci

Run time: 90 minutes

Photos by Parisa Taghizadeh, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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