“Final Portrait”

 

            Alberto Giacometti was a tremendously influential 20th-century Swiss sculptor and painter, whose works have sold for millions since his death, but you wouldn't know any of that from the rather modest surroundings of his Parisien residence in 1964.

            In “Final Portrait,” Alberto (Geoffrey Rush) is an irascible old man who sulks around his messy studio, constantly fussing with his sculptures, because, literally, they're never done.  He has a long-suffering wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), who puts up with all his moods and yes, his shenanigans.  Lately he's been enamored with a local high-priced call girl, Caroline (Clemence Poesy), and Annette is forced to just look the other way, as if she's used to this.  In their rambling artist compound lives Alberto's brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), himself a sculptor of much lesser talent, who's also accustomed to Alberto's determined self-destruction.  He says Alberto isn't happy unless he's miserable.

            Enter the mild-mannered James Lord (Armie Hammer), a well-to-do young American who's determined to sit for a Giacometti portrait, but that turns out to be easier said than done.  Alberto acts like the poster child for A.D.H.D.:  can't seem to focus on anything for very long, always skipping from one unfinished project to the next, and stopping in his tracks for whatever suits his fancy at that particular moment.  While James tries to set up a regular schedule for the portrait sitting, Alberto is constantly undermining the process:  he doesn't feel like it that day.  He wants to take a walk.  He wants to go eat lunch, complete with several glasses of wine.  He wants to go be with Caroline.  (After enjoying her company more than her “handlers” wanted, he happily pays them for her overtime.)

            Alberto is always fussing with his cigarettes.  (He died at 64 of lung disease, less than two years after this “final portrait.”) When the names of other artists are mentioned, he doesn't have anything nice to say about them (including Chagall and Picasso).  He's always scolding James to quit moving.  So James will sit there for hours, and Alberto will suddenly decide he doesn't like what he's doing, and he'll wash over it with gray paint and start over the next day.  In fact, Alberto starts over so many times that James wonders if he'll ever finish, until James finally realizes that Alberto never really wants anything to be “finished.”  Because it depresses him (“what better breeding ground for self-doubt than success?”).  He always wants to look at his pieces as works-in-progress.  He's even been known to go back and burn sketches that he later decided he was unhappy with----an impulsive act which horrifies James, because he realizes the “market value” of what just went up in smoke, but Alberto doesn't care about “popularity.”  He thinks that's a trap.

            How can we learn to like someone this disagreeable?  We don't, really.  But like moths to a flame, we're drawn in to the brightness of his artistic luminosity.  His “bad boy” behavior just enhances the image.  He says he's unable to control the Muse, or will it to come visit, and he never knows when he'll start working in a way that seems satisfying to him, at least temporarily.  Yes, his company can be a bit tiresome.  And his methods more than a little tedious.  But somehow Geoffrey Rush, as he did in “Shine,” makes us believe he is a true genius at work.  And for that we'll put up with lack of charm.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association