When dealing with the lives of creative personalities, cinema nearly always gets things spectacularly wrong. Hollywood has been notorious in this respect. Remember Song Without End, in which Dirk Bogarde mugged his way hopelessly through the career of Franz Liszt, or Lust For Life, with Kirk Douglas as somebody called “Vincent Van Go” painting sunflowers and chopping his ear off ?
Hence the heart sinks a little at the prospect of a film version of James Lord’s 1965 memoir A Giacometti Portrait. Lord, a gay American writer who escaped to Paris and the company of various artists whose biographer he became, was persuaded to sit for a likeness by Alberto Giacometti. Best known as a sculptor, Giacometti, so the recent Tate Modern exhibition reminded us, was also a mesmerising portrait painter, fashioning a species of labyrinth out of his subject’s face which we explore without any guarantee of an exit. No wonder Lord’s vanity was piqued, though he must have suspected from the outset that the whole experience would be far from orthodox.
Luckily both screenplay and direction of Final Portrait (★★★★★, cert 15, 90 mins) are by Stanley Tucci, an actor of notable refinement and discrimination who now puts these qualities to work behind the camera. The portrait sittings become an epic affair lasting several weeks, during which James Lord, his demure WASP preppiness expertly realised by Armie Hammer, turns into a sounding board for the studio dramatics of Giacometti and his entourage. The latter consists of his wrily philosophical brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub), a wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), who is expected to endure his meanness and philandering, and a whore (the uproarious Clémence Poésy), whose pimps trash his studio before his casual munificence exposes their vulgarity.
Geoffrey Rush is suitably craggy and dishevelled as the sculptor-painter, convinced that his sitter, merely through twitching a face muscle, is trying to trick him. Tucci’s Giacometti is wracked with dissatisfaction – “there’s a breeding ground for doubt in success” – and eternally mistrustful of his own gifts. There is potential for the sort of portentous cliché that invokes an artist’s infantilism and self-indulgence as necessary validations of greatness. Helped by its limited budget, Final Portrait neatly sidesteps such an obvious trap.
London locations pass for Paris, lighting and camerawork absorb the austere smokiness of Giacometti’s sculptures and canvases, and Evan Lurie provides an outstanding musical score. Tucci can look his subject squarely in the face.