If the great and influential Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was anything like the character portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in “Final Portrait,” they could have come up with another title for the film.
“Portrait of a [Bleeping] [Bleep-bleep]” comes to mind.
Not that the always interesting, Oscar-winning Rush doesn’t successfully create a provocative and eccentric and narcissistic creative genius. (Rush has quite a resume of historical characters: Albert Einstein, Peter Sellers, David Helfgott in “Shine,” Leon Trotsky in “Frida”…) It’s just that Giacometti is a boor, and the film skirts the edge of being boring.
Giacometti makes so much cash he finds it to be bothersome, so he squirrels it away in his rundown studio. He is disdainful and sometimes downright cruel to his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud), while doting on his prostitute girlfriend Caroline (Clemence Poesy) in front of Annette’s face. Annette lives in barely tolerable conditions while Giacometti throws cash at Caroline and gifts her with a convertible.
Oh, and Giacometti speaks fondly about a fantasy he once maintained: killing two women “after I raped them.” He would indulge in these sick thoughts before going to sleep at night.
“It comforted me,” he explains.
What a guy.
Of course, the history of cinema is overflowing with biopics of artists, writers, musicians, math and science geniuses, explorers, world leaders, et al., who careen through everyday life with little or no regard for the feelings and perceptions of others, because they are on a higher quest and they don’t have time for kindness and consideration. Rush’s Giacometti isn’t exactly a monster, but he’s no picnic either — and he’s trapped in a static, stagey, talky period piece.
On heels of playing the American grad student Ollie, who is staying in the northern Italian countryside in 1983 in “Call Me By Your Name,” Armie Hammer plays the American art critic and author James Lord, who is spending some time in Paris in 1964. (Lord is a real-life character, a renowned biographer and essayist who passed in 2009.)
James is strikingly handsome but somewhat stiff. (If James and Don Draper from “Mad Men” were in the same room, you’d describe Draper as the more animated of the two.)
“When I was a young writer, I agreed to pose for a portrait for the renowned artist Alberto Giacometti in Paris 1964,” says James in voice-over narration. “It would take just a couple of hours …”
Well. Not quite.
Writer-director Stanley Tucci makes the curious choice of shading Giacometti’s shabby, overcrowded studio in monochromatic tones. It has a stifling effect on the conversation-heavy scenes that play out in the studio, as James sits rigid in a chair and Alberto chain-smokes and fusses and stabs at the canvas, complaining endlessly.
At the end of the first day — which was supposed to be the ONLY day — Alberto says, “So on that note, shall we stop for a day? It’s a start. You can come back tomorrow, right?”
And so begins a series of vignettes, many of them introduced with title cards telling us it’s Day 3, Day 4, Day 12, Day 13 …
On occasions Alberto and James, or Alberto and James and Annette, or Alberto and James and Caroline, go out for walks or drives or visits to Parisian cafes filled with sophisticated 1960s Parisians, with Parisian-café accordion music swelling in the background. Alberto is charismatic and infuriating and maddening, while Caroline is a spoiled brat and Annette is a sad, simmering doormat and James — well, James is a mannequin puppy dog who follows Alberto everywhere around and keeps pushing back his return flight to the States at Alberto’s request.
(In real life, the wait was worth it. Giacometti gifted the portrait to Lord — and the painting eventually was valued at $20 million.)
Tucci makes a few game attempts to liven things up with salacious and mildly dangerous detours, e.g., when Alberto frequents a brothel and when Caroline’s pimps break into Alberto’s studio and wreck the place because Alberto hasn’t always paid for Caroline’s time. (Idiots. You could have stolen those sculptures and made a fortune.)
The camera lingers on Hammer’s chiseled good looks, sometimes in close-ups so tight we see only a portion of his face. Hammer is a fine actor, but he can be a low-wattage figure onscreen in certain roles — like this one — where there’s a minimum of emoting and movement.
Rush gets to have all the fun. Whereas James never has a hair out of place, Alberto has a wild halo of gray tangles atop his head, and his hands are paint-stained and his coat is rumpled, and his eyes are forever flickering and searching. He given to grand and demonstrative acts, whether he’s feuding with his wife or lavishing kisses on Caroline.
“Final Portrait” has the feel of a work that might be quite effective on a modest stage in a small theater. As a film, it’s well-made and the performances are fine, but it feels slight and thin and inconsequential — quite the opposite of the work Alberto Giacometti left behind.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Stanley Tucci. Rated R (for language, some sexual references and nudity). Running time: 90 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.