On Friday, May 11, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center will begin screening Stanley Tucci’s biopic “Final Portrait.” This film is about the work of celebrated sculptor and artist Alberto Giacometti, played by Geoffrey Rush. It is the first film in 10 years for writer and director Tucci, who is known better known as an actor.
Giacometti, a Swiss native who worked in Paris, is best known for his tall, emaciated-looking surrealist sculptures of men and women. Never satisfied with his work, which commanded high prices, he often put it aside or abandoned it. He died at 64 of heart disease.
“Final Portrait” captures the 2½ weeks in 1964 when Giacometti worked on a portrait of his friend, the writer and art critic James Lord, played by Armie Hammer. It is adapted from Lord’s 1965 book, “A Giacometti Portrait.” The dapper Lord contrasts visually to the disheveled Giacometti. The artist says the painting will only take a few hours to complete. Instead, he works on it much longer, and a frustrated Lord must reschedule his flight back to New York numerous times.
“It’s impossible to finish a portrait,” Giacometti says, throwing down his paintbrushes and asking Lord to return the next day. Meanwhile, his mistress and current muse, Caroline (Clémence Poésy), bursts into the scene, full of affection and high spirits. When Giacometti’s agent shows up with piles of cash, the artist hides it in his studio, or gives it to Caroline or to his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud).
Most of the film spends time with the artist in his studio, a disheveled space depicted in shades of gray and black, scattered with sculptures. Giacometti’s brother Diego, played by Vineyard summer resident Tony Shalhoub, is also an artist, and acts as his assistant. Illustrating his frustration with his work, Giacometti tears up a group of his drawings and paintings, burning them in a trashcan.
After Caroline goes missing, the artist spends more time with his long-suffering wife, who is shown occasionally with her own lover. He paints Annette nude from the waist up, and her skinny frame can be seen as his initial inspiration. In between painting sessions, Giacometti and Lord stroll through a cemetery or quaff wine at Café Adrién. After two of Caroline’s pimps trash the artist’s studio, Giacometti hands them wads of money to pay for her services.
Giacometti’s portrait focuses on Lord’s face. It looks complete, until the artist repeatedly paints over it and starts again. Extreme close-ups sectionalize Lord’s face, suggesting how the artist works. By day 12, Lord takes up swimming to relieve his exasperation with the delays and revisions.
Eventually, Lord says goodbye, and the portrait goes to New York for an exhibition. It is said to be worth $20 million. “Final Portrait” is well worth watching for its rendering of the artistic process, less so for its plot, which repeats Giacometti’s inability to feel his work is finished.
Information and tickets for “Final Portrait” and other Film Center screenings are available at mvfilmsociety.com.