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The Agony and the Effigy

Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics

Final Portrait (2017)

Stanley Tucci's fifth film as a director – and the first in which he doesn't appear himself – tells an episode from the late life of artist and sculptor Alberto Giacometti, a topic that clearly chimes with Mr. Tucci's long-standing interest in fine art and the turbulent urges that go into its creation. "Final Portrait" features Geoffrey Rush in full shambling dishevel as the 63-year-old Giacometti and Armie Hammer as James Lord, a younger American who sits for one of the artist's last works and starts to wonder if it will never actually be finished. The film has the utmost compassion for artists helplessly at the mercy of their own creativity and libido; and if its small scale keeps the external world mostly out of view, it at least believes the art to be worth all the internal aggro.

A lot of the film is built around conversations between Giacometti and Lord while the latter sits as stationary as possible, spiky dialogues in which Giacometti growls and rumbles and Lord speaks without moving his lips too much. "You look like a thug," the artist observes, while the camera regards Mr. Hammer's near-perfect physiognomy from a range of six inches and the audience ponders what he really means. Giacometti has a flighty mistress Caroline (Clémence Poésy) and a long-suffering wife Annette (Sylvie Testud), a less than joyous triangle that Lord observes without judgment, beyond a certain suspicion that his portrait might be finished by now if there was only one of them around. Giacometti's brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub, a regular for Mr. Tucci) is the very soul of compassionate understanding, tending the artistic hurricane but knowing better than to expect it to change course.

For obvious reasons you never quite see Mr. Rush doing much direct painting, but the recreations of Giacometti's scratchy fidgety images (by artist Rohan Harris) look authentic enough to an interested if inexpert observer. And the film's version of the artist's shambolic atelier is terrific, all dusty shelves and grimy corners in which Giacometti has casually hidden large bundles of cash, caring nothing for such material values; there's a nice bit of comedy where he casually pays off Caroline's pimp with money found more or less down the back of the sofa. Here, 1964 Paris doesn't get much of a look in – the film was made in London – and it's a chamber piece rather than an expansive artistic gesture, making Mr. Tucci's decision to go for near-constant hand-held camera feel a rather heavy-handed gesture. As a sign of artistic tension, the wobbling camera might be due a deserved retirement; but as shorthand for the mind of a difficult man, it comes in this case from a place of pure love.


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