The biopic was once a rather schlocky genre. That was back in the day when every film biography had to tell a person’s entire life story from soup to nuts. Is it any wonder that those movies skittered through incidents or that they lacked texture and detail? The biopic grew much more artful when it began to focus on single intense chapters of a famous person’s life — like, say, the passing of the 13th Amendment in “Lincoln,” or Brian Wilson’s recording of “Pet Sounds” in “Love & Mercy.” Now, in “Final Portrait,” Stanley Tucci, directing his first film in 10 years, takes the biopic to an even more exquisitely homespun level of miniature close-up. He has made an entire drama about the couple of weeks in 1964 when Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), the fabled Swiss sculptor and painter (then 63 years old), decided to create a portrait of his friend, the American author and art critic James Lord (Armie Hammer).
Watching “Final Portrait,” you get only random bits and pieces of Giacometti’s “life story,” but in another way the film bites off a whole chunk of his life and presents it to you just as it might have happened. Over the course of two weeks that seem not all that eventful — yet, in another way, as eventful as any two weeks — we soak up his jokes and his gossip, his habits, his work schedule, his favorite dives, his drinking and chain smoking, the cranky competitive wit of his conversation. It’s as if we weren’t so much watching a movie about him as hanging out with him.
Much of “Final Portrait” takes place in Giacometti’s studio, a crumbling garret with high ceilings located down a brick-walk alleyway in Paris. It doesn’t look the work space of somebody who has become one of the most famous and celebrated artists of his time. It looks like a dim bohemian hovel, a place strewn with debris where everything comes in grim shades of white, gray, and black: the iconic spindly-limbed sculptures that are placed nearly at random around the room; the cruddy walls and peeling-paint doorways; and Giacometti himself — played by Rush, in a performance of dissolute exuberance, as a kind of rumpled mad professor in a tweed jacket and sweater vest, with a nimbus of graying hair and a creased and bulbous look that redefines the word “hangdog.”
His American friend James is about to return to New York, and Alberto casually lets him know that he’d like to paint his portrait before he goes; it will take just a few hours. But once those hours are up, the painting has barely been started. James has to keep coming back, day after day, postponing his flight, as the obsessive and self-lacerating Giacometti layers in fine-drawn black-and-white lines, trying to “perfect” the portrait. Except that the perfection he’s seeking is unattainable. As we learn, he can’t complete anything, and considers even the works that have made him famous — the emaciated sculptures that look like they weren’t so much carved as dripped — to be unfinished.
Rush and Tucci create a captivating portrait of an artist who’s at once elated, haunted, and utterly possessed. The Giacometti we see lives a simple life, working away in the studio and then heading off to the local bistro to guzzle red wine. His wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), was once his muse, and we can see — though the film never spells it out — that her skinny physique was a key inspiration for his legendary mode of sculpture. Now, he has a mistress, a flame-haired French prostitute, Caroline (Clémence Poésy), whom he flirts with right in front of Annette, stoking their marital battles. She’s his muse in a less direct way — the life force that inspires him to go on, despite the fact that he’s starting to wonder what the point of it all is.
Rush makes Giacometti a winningly cranky scoundrel-egomaniac, the kind of celebrity artist who appears to treat fame as an afterthought (it doesn’t stop him from tormenting himself), yet who has constructed his entire existence around the freedom that fame brings. Every so often, his agent stops by to deliver stacks of money, which he’s too paranoid to deposit in banks (considering that he’s Swiss, that counts as major paranoia). Instead, he “hides” them around the studio, dipping into the cash whenever he needs it — notably after the place gets trashed as a warning by Caroline’s pimps. They haven’t been paid, so Alberto heads down to the bar, hands them a giant wad of bills for the last six months, and another for the next six, and he’s all set. He doesn’t mind paying a price, because she’s as necessary to him as water.
“Final Portrait” confirms that Stanley Tucci, who wrote and directed the film (adapting Lord’s book on Giacometti), is the most modest yet nimble of moviemakers: a specialist in life-size portraiture, who finds the interior hum of drama in each and every moment. At times, the film suggests a light historical version of “Life Lessons,” the great Martin Scorsese segment of “New York Stories” (1989). But you can also draw a direct line from what Tucci did 20 years ago in “Big Night” (co-directing with Campbell Scott) to his wry and intimate undercutting of artist-biopic grandiosity here. “Big Night,” after all, was the story of a restaurant putting on one elaborate go-for-broke dinner, and in “Final Portrait,” Giacometti’s attempt to capture his friend in a painting becomes the entire world for him — it’s not just a painting, it’s a quest. After a while, he’ll take his etching of the face, which has been so intricately constructed, and blot it out with gray paint, starting all over. Is this obsession, or self-annihilating perfection, or insanity, or a kind of genius? Maybe all of the above. What’s clear is that Giacometti, whose favorite thing to say when staring at the canvas is “Oh, f—-k,” as if he were having an existential meltdown, is out to capture a truth that most of us can’t begin to see.
The central relationship is the one between Alberto and James, who he says resembles a thug, and who wonders how long this sitting can possibly go on. Armie Hammer bears a striking resemblance to the real James Lord, and plays him with polite elegance, except that what’s fascinating about this actor is how he’s able to suggest turbulent eddies of thought beneath the blondish Clark Kent looks and preppie manners. In “Final Portrait,” James embraces Alberto for the impossible task master he is, and the way that Rush plays Giacometti, his prankish testiness becomes a kind of holy armor. You don’t necessarily feel close to him — he’s another of Rush’s mad-dog monster-saints — yet watching the movie, you feel you’ve gotten to know who Alberto Giacometti is, and to revel in what it was like when an artist, sitting in a shabby studio, could command the world.