Final Portrait: Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer Star in a Caricature of the Artist as an Old Man
By Andrea Thompson
Watching “Final Portrait,” I could only marvel at how privilege really is wasted on the privileged. The movie is mostly an unwitting reminder on how white men are the ones who get the most access, and thus have the most opportunities to create and tell their stories. It must be why they don't seem to have much respect or appreciation for the creative process. Time and again, we're told just how unlikable these creators are, how ugly it is to bring a work to life, how the people closest to them often suffer for it, all while somehow trying endear these terrible people to us.
“Final Portrait” seems to want to eschew the nostalgic glamour of similar movies about the 60s, but its dull, muted palette seems even more depressing in the face of its shabbily chic surroundings, the casual entitlement of its characters, and the warmth the movie shows once it leaves the city streets and heads into nature, or a charmingly lit restaurant. What kind of mindset can view such scenery in such an uncaring manner? But then, white men don't really have to worry about how their failure could affect how people view white men, or if said failure will close doors for other white men who are trying to make it. So they are free to act as badly as they please, secure in the the knowledge that it will merely be taken as yet another sign of their artistic temperament and genius.
It means that we get all the tired conventions of the artist biopic, which in this case involves the painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and his friendship with American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer). They run into each other as Lord is on a brief visit to Europe in 1964, and Giacometti asks him to sit for a portrait, reassuring him that it shouldn't take more than a few hours. Lord of course agrees, and Giacometti asks him to return for more and more sittings in order to finish. Lord then finds out more than he ever wanted to know about his friend's daily life, which includes a long-suffering wife (who at least finds some reassurance of her own), a prostitute he is openly having an affair with, and naturally, the many insecurities which seem to drive his work.
All of this is supposed to make us contemplate once again just where the line between genius and madness lies, and what the price for great art really is. But without any kind of real dissection of the power and privileges of this unique position in society, all “Final Portrait” really achieves is another kind of glorification of the same reprehensible behavior, even if the movie is directed in a distinctly unglorified fashion. It means no one is really done justice, and the film is surprisingly close-minded about outside perspectives, or anyone who doesn't conform to expectations. Sylvie Testud and Clémence Poésy are never allowed to be anything but the aggrieved wife, and young, carefree mistress, respectively. And Lord's partner, who has little patience for the process, is never shown, or even heard, perhaps because Lord was gay, and his male companion is thus incapable of being another woman who just doesn't understand.
However, what really makes Lord's problems amount to even less than a hill of beans is how easy they are to solve. He doesn't have to stand up to Giacometti as much as just firmly state that the sittings must end, especially due to the costs involved in Lord delaying his flight over and over again. Lord stops the process by a bit of trickery, which feels unearned, anti-climactic, and about 90 minutes too late. Writer-director Stanley Tucci clearly had a vision and the skills necessary to tell this story, along with actors who are completely captivating as they give their all. But without something to say, the result is about as interesting as a blank canvas.