In Paris in 1964, American writer James Lord agrees to sit for a portrait for famed artist Alberto Giacometti. Although Giacometti promised it would take only an afternoon, the artist is a perfectionist, and Lord ends up returning to Giacometti’s studio for more than two weeks, repeatedly pushing back his return flight back to America.
If that sounds like a thin premise for a movie, you’re not wrong entirely wrong. Final Portrait is, quite literally at times, a film about watching paint dry.
Final Portrait, written and directed by Stanley Tucci, is a patient, un-presuming 90 minutes that never undertakes being more than the sum of its parts — more baguette than glossy, sugar-crowned croquembouche.
Lord, played by Armie Hammer (who’s beginning to look very comfortable strolling although beautiful, sun-dappled European streets) is mostly just a straight man opposite Geoffrey Rush and his tour de force performance as the persnickety Giacometti, tormented by his pursuit of perfection but seemingly helpless to when the bouts of divine creativity arrive. The movie has moments of Waiting For Godot — minus the absurdity and the bowler hats. The world beyond the studio walls is never entirely rendered; we don’t know whom Lord is calling to inform about his extended stay in Paris or what he has to get back to; Giacometti’s wife Annette Arm (Sylvie Testud) and mistress Caroline (Clémence Poésy) flit in and out of his life like birds.
Tucci has an artist’s eye, made particularly obvious in shots that frame Giacometti behind his sculptures like they’re jail bars, but the director never fully indulges the frustration that comes from sitting for hours for a portrait that might never be finished. There is no claustrophobia or impatience, no discomfort or paranoia. Instead, we get a mostly pleasant movie that repeatedly informs us that art is torture, as we watch two friends spend sunny afternoons in each other’s company, taking long lunches to drink glasses of red wine and walk through Paris. Some movies call for popcorn and Red Vines; Final Portrait asks for a rainy afternoon and cheerful nihilism.
With its de-saturated grays and layered textures, Final Portrait itself is like a still portrait of Giacometti. You, as the viewer, are lucky just to get to spend time with these men during twenty or so days in their lives, privileged to be allowed inside Giacometti’s studio, watching the painting come together.