The paramount theme in Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait is that of tedium. The narrative revolves around the art of a portrait, at the hands of a perpetual perfectionist, thus meaning we have to wait, ages, and ages, and ages, for him to get it right. Then even when we believe he has done, he rips it up and starts all over again. Naturally, this doesn’t exactly sound like a desirable cinematic experience, but Tucci has somehow managed to ensure we remain engaged, and the tedium that exists is used a playful plot device which we can’t shake off, but at the same we don’t allow it to interfere with our enjoyment of the production at hand.
The aforementioned artist is the eccentric, Swiss post-impressionist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), who convinced James Lord (Armie Hammer), a journalist and friend, to pose for him. Agreeing to sit for an afternoon, that soon turns into a day, which turns into a two weeks, and still it seems that Giacometti is no closer to satisfaction, until it dawns on the model, that he’s never going to be. His beleaguered wife Annette (Sylie Testud) and his brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) are somewhat more patient to his peculiar ways, which also land the artist in a spot of bother, when he owes money to pimps, having entered into an affair with prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) – an endeavour which ensures this drawn-out process of the portrait is no closer to completion, and James is no closer to returning back home to America.
Akin to a stage play, with a limited number of characters, and shot mostly in one, single location – Tucci maintains the fast pace of the narrative to keep us compelled with an injection of irreverence, a playful edge which is emblematic of his own presence as an actor, where he always seems to have a glint in his eye, as though he knows something the viewer doesn’t. Tonally it makes Final Portrait something of a triumph, and perhaps that is down to the fact Tucci doesn’t star in this picture, alleviating the pressure somewhat and ensuring he remains fully committed to the single role of directing – which is hard enough as it is. He’s not missed either, thanks to the two excellent performances by Rush and Hammer, the latter in particular impressing in what appears to be a strong indie curve the actor seems to be taking, away from studio movies, collaborating instead with creative, resourceful filmmakers. You just wait until Call Me By Your Name comes out.
The character James does work as something of a cipher in this feature, however, but it’s an integral entry point for the viewer to have. Often biopics work better when we adopt the perspective and embody an outside source, such as we did in James Dean biopic Life, where we peered into the Hollywood superstar’s livelihood through the eyes (and lens) of a photographer. It allows us to study the subject rather than attempt to embody them and understand them – for with minds as gloriously impossible and visionary as Giacometti’s, it’s often rather easier, and more rewarding, to simply watch and observe.