Final Portrait

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Last night’s screening of Final portrait, directed by Stanley Tucci and starring Geoffrey Rush, leaves me puzzled.  Giacometti’s portrait of the American writer James Lord was to take three or four hours of sitting, but finally takes more than twenty days.  The dilapidated studio is scrupulously re-created, down to plaster figures that had to be destroyed later, lest they found their way onto the black market in forgeries!  Geoffrey Rush sulks and skulks his way through the process, although his mumbling and cursing occasionally give way to bursts of lucidity about Cézanne’s failed experiment or Picasso’s charlatanism or simply the irreducibility of the real world.  Despite its test of the sitter’s patience (not to mention that of the viewer!), the film retains its forward movement, through occasional ‘distractions’, until resolved by an unlikely stratagem that finally allows the work to be ‘completed’ (I won’t spoil it for you).  Geoffrey Rush is now such a powerful figure in the industry, that his bravura performance risks over-shadowing the task in hand. The sly smile, the meaningful look to the camera remind us that Geoffrey is ‘doing’ Giacometti! The Melbourne audience was adoring, of course, given that Geoffrey introduced the film in person, took part in the subsequent Q&A and shamelessly promoted Sofitel (MIFF sponsor).  I can’t help feeling, however, that Giacometti got lost in the process.

Is this the portrait of a restless genius or a clapped-out old man?  There is something Lear-like in the performance that veers between pathos and foolishness, much as Sartre once said that Giacometti’s work swings between being and nothingness.  This existential quality of the actual work is not as pervasive as it might have been, since we concentrate (guided by James Lord’s memoir) on the artist’s foibles and failings and less on the theme of art-as-necessary-failure.  As Giacometti’s friend Samuel Beckett put it: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.  Fail better.’  The memoir and the movie have to be brought to a conclusion, after all; and the manic jazz soundtrack only offers banal closure to what could have been a more searching analysis of Giacometti’s work and the world of post-war anguish and despair.  There is no social context here, no mention of Giacometti’s many friends (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, Boris Vian…).  There is just Geoffrey, ‘doing’ Giacometti; but I should add – that is already something! And Tucci’s direction is faultless.