The Final Portrait

October 6, 2017
Smile for the camera, James & Alberto
Smile for the camera, James & Alberto

In Paris in 2006 I dined with James Lord in the restaurant of L’Hotel in rue des Beaux Arts. It’s the hotel in which Oscar Wilde had expired in an upstairs room, losing his final battle with the wallpaper. Many years after Wilde’s departure, Lord established himself in an exquisite apartment on the other side of the street, drawn to this legendary thoroughfare in which the French art trade sold its masterpieces to the world.

Tall, upright and quietly spoken, Lord was an American aristocrat who had always enjoyed a private income. In his 80s he was dressed in a tie and blazer, a uniform he wore throughout his life.

Lord (1922-2009) had a reputation as a kind of super groupie for great modern artists. In his own words, he had “a gift for admiration”. Arriving in Paris as a young, aspiring writer he attached himself to Giacometti and Picasso. He became so obsessed with Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, that he considered marrying her, even though his predilections were exclusively homosexual.

In The Final Portrait Lord is played by Armie Hammer, himself the great-grandson of the famous art collector, Armand Hammer. It is 1961 and Lord is having his portrait painted by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), best known for his spindly figures in bronze and plaster, viewed as the epitome of the existentialist sensibility – a label the artist always rejected.

Hammer’s tie and blazer are right, and his chiselled features are in the same category as Lord’s, but there is something missing from this portrayal. I think it’s Lord’s waspishness, the hint of snobbery that coloured his every statement. The writer was also, unmistakably, gay, whereas Hammer gives off a very different vibe. As far as I know, the only other time Armie had to change his orientation on screen was as J.Edgar Hoover’s severely closeted love interest, Clyde Tolson, in Clint Eastwood’s J.Edgar (2011).

Perhaps Lord was less aloof in his younger days, or more ready to play the acolyte at the feet of his idols. This movie is based on his small book, A Giacometti Portrait (1964), which covers 18 days in which he sat for the artist. While Giacometti was painting him, Lord was taking notes for a written portrait of his portrayer. The result is an intimate record of Giacometti’s conversation and mannerisms.

Director, Stanley Tucci – better known as a character actor – has stuck closely to the book, with some material drawn from Lord’s more substantial biography of the artist, published in 1985. There’s also a playful homage to a famous photo of Giacometti in the rain by Cartier-Bresson. The result is a boutique project, limited in scope but intriguing in detail.

Giacometti was so eccentric that I dreaded the thought of Geoffrey Rush in this role. It seemed to invite the overacting that has become such a habit. Instead, Rush almost underplays the character, putting in an impressive, assured performance. It made me wonder if this actor needs to play a complete oddball in order to rein in his own idiosyncrasies.

For those who know nothing about Giacometti his way of life will seem bizarre in the extreme. By the early 1960s he was one the most famous and successful artists in the world, but he insisted on living and working in a squalid Parisian studio that was barely inhabitable by even most modest bourgeois standards. He was a man who sacrificed everything to the demands of his work. The two people closest to him – his brother, Diego (Tony Shaloub) and his wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud) – understood his needs, and tolerated his aversion to comfort. Only when he was making millions did Annette insist that he buy her an apartment.

Lord described Giacometti’s lifestyle as “suicide on the installment plan”, and the movie includes a conversation between artist and model on the most desirable way of killing oneself. “I think death must be a fascinating experience,” says Giacometti, “and I’m curious about it.”

Much of Giacometti’s behaviour could be seen as self-destructive, from his warped patterns of waking and sleeping, to his massive consumption of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol. His other late indulgence was for women, with a special fixation on a young prostitute named Caroline (Clémence Poésy), who exploited his generosity at will. Giacometti, for his part, was only too happy to be exploited.

Indifferent to fame, careless with money, relentlessly self-critical and often depressed, Giacometti was not content until he had made everything unbelievably difficult for himself. He tells Lord repeatedly that his portrait will never be finished. He’s not even sure that it’s possible to finish a painting. He feels, from time to time, that he’s making a little progress, but keeps wiping out the face and starting all over. At best he claims to have made a beginning. It would be a caricature of the artistic genius, if only it were not so true to life.

The Final Portrait
Written & directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub, Sylvie Testud
UK, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 October, 2017