Our relationship to art is, for the most part, casual. We see a painting, we consider it, we move on. Some of us might love some paintings more than others, and they might decide to delve deeper into the world and creation of that painting, but the majority of us never consider beyond what we see on the canvas. Most of us never deign to consider the process.
Author James Lord got the chance to experience the process first hand in 1964 when he agreed to sit for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti. “It won’t take long,” he was told. As a capstone to a trip to Paris you could certainly do worse. Sitting for a few years so a master can paint your portrait is the kind of experience most of us will never get to have. So, of course, Lord said yes. Almost three weeks later, the portrait was complete.
One might think that a movie based on that experience would be an exercise in tedium, but one would be wrong. Based on Lord’s book A Giacometti Portrait which detailed the ordeal of sitting for the painting, Final Portrait is a stunning and often hilarious examination of the relationship between art and artist, artist and subject, and subject and art.
Writer/director Stanley Tucci brings the real life story to the big screen, joining the powerful forces of Armie Hammer and Geoffrey Rush (as Lord and Giacometti, respectively) together for a delightfully madcap portrayal of the artistic process. Though small in scope—much of the film is literally just Hammer and Rush sitting together in a room—Final Portrait is big on ideas.
Though he was himself knowledgeable about art and Giacometti (he had previously written a biography of the painter), Lord had precious little idea what he was getting into when he agreed to sit for the portrait—which was, the title suggests, the artist’s last. Hammer has always been a wonderfully understated comedic actor, and those sensibilities serve him well here. His exasperation, tempered though it might be by awe and honor, is palpable here, and the actor mines that well for subtly comedic purposes.
Rush, meanwhile, serves well as Hammer’s comedic foil. Cantankerous but warm (or is it the other way around?), Giacometti is single mindedly focused on the portrait, paying little attention to the troubles Lord goes through to continue sitting for the painting. Time after time, Lord rearranges his schedule to ensure he’s able to stay through the duration, and time after time Giacometti abuses his permissiveness.
This is all played hilariously by Rush, who affects a gruff demeanor that balances out Hammer’s willingness to subjugate himself to the process. It is that very process that becomes the focus of Final Portrait, with their adversarial friendship serving as our window into a side of art we so rarely get to see.
Tucci does a magnificent job of showcasing this all in a way that’s consistently interesting, no small feat given the subject matter. Yes, his stars are captivating, but they’re given so much great material to work with. As a director he showcases a remarkable eye for capturing the nuance of the artistic process and, through that, the human experience.
Final Portrait isn’t the kind of movie that will win awards or high acclaim, but that never stops it from being an all around delight. It’s the kind of small scale movie that most will overlook, but the ones who do manage to catch it will be enraptured by the cinematic sensibilities of Tucci and the powerhouse performances from Hammer and Rush. Maybe it won’t entirely change your relationship with art, but it’ll certainly present a side of it that you’d never before considered.
Final Portrait is now playing in select theaters.