The Impossibilist

Final Portrait, Written and Directed by Stanley Tucci

In Paris in 1964 the Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti asked James Lord, his friend and an American art critic, to sit for a portrait. It would require only a single sitting lasting two or three hours and then Lord could go back to America as he had planned. A fortnight later, and after 18 unpredictable sessions, work was finally stopped on the still unfinished oil painting. The portrait that resulted from that frustrating process is among the last paintings that Giacometti would complete before his death in 1966. In 2015 it was purchased by David Zwirner at a Christie’s auction for $21 million.

It is a portrait we know a great deal about because Lord, who also released a controversial biography about Giacometti in 1986, kept a journal of the process that was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to coincide with the artist’s 1965 retrospective exhibition. Called A Giacometti Portrait, the slim 118-page book is the record of the conversations that took place as the portrait was being painted and then painted over, since Giacometti’s view was that it could never be satisfactorily finished. Early on, the artist looks at his subject and says, “You have the head of a brute, a real thug. If I was to paint you as I see you now and a policeman was to see this painting, you’d be thrown in jail, like that. But it’s all right because I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you. It’s impossible.” In addition to its depiction of an artist in a constant state of crisis, the written portrait of the making of the painted portrait becomes a trace of the artist’s sensibility as he talks about a wide range of ideas and attitudes, including his view of other artists, his dark dreams, his meditation on suicide and his capacity for detailed observation. It is a portrait of the artist as Sisyphus.

Now it has been turned into a film written and directed by the multi-talented actor and director Stanley Tucci. In one way it is an improbable choice for a movie, since very little happens, and watching paint being applied before it dries doesn’t seem a sufficiently rich combination to hold our interest. But Tucci’s intelligent adaptation of Lord’s book knows what to leave out and what to keep in. He also lifts a few ideas from other written sources, so the film occasionally moves from the studio to different Paris locations frequented by Giacometti. While not as limited in its setting as My Dinner with Andre, it could be called My Sittings with Alberto (Plus a Few Additions). Alberto and Lord go to cafés and restaurants; they take a ride in the expensive convertible Giacometti has bought for his mistress; they negotiate a settlement with her pimps to pay for the time she spends modelling; Alberto goes to a brothel one night after a domestic quarrel; Lord goes swimming to relieve the tension of the portrait sitting; and they stroll together through a local cemetery and talk about tree growth and mortality.

Tucci is aided by an ideal cast, led by Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti and Armie Hammer as James Lord, and with fine supporting actors like Sylvie Testud as Annette, his wife; Clémence Poésy as his mistress, Caroline; and Tony Shalhoud as Diego, his brother and frequent model. They are characters who are mentioned in Lord’s book but who have to be fleshed out and given voice in the movie. Mr. Hammer has little to do other than sit on a piece of furniture and be the focus of the artist’s omnivorous gaze. In explaining the difficulty of getting a convincing likeness and dismissing the idea of the psychological portrait, Giacometti said that he “had enough trouble with the outside without bothering about the inside.” The film gives us ample evidence of the scrutiny to which Lord’s outside is subjected; there are moments when the camera moves in so close that the pores on his skin assume Brobdingnagian proportions. (The cinematography can be intense: in one studio pan the camera picks up fibres and hair suspended in a small plaster of a female nude, and one night the glow from one of Alberto’s ubiquitous cigarettes supplies the only light in the darkened studio.)

Tucci employs the camera as a device for visual interrogation. There is even a moment when Alberto stands at a 45-degree angle only inches away from Lord’s face and remarks that “from the front you look like a brute, side only you look like a degenerate.” But for the most part Alberto remains at his easel and allows the camera to do his obsessive looking. We understand its physical proximity as having a phenomenological equivalence; in looking, the artist is seeing what reality is and is able to approximate its true nature.

Geoffrey Rush is flawless as Giacometti. Man Ray, who took many portraits of the artist, said he had “an unusual face and greyish skin, like a medieval sculpture,” and Rush matches the description. When we first see him he is sitting on his bed across from the studio, absorbed in thought and smoking. He looks like a rumpled version of Rodin’s thinker. He constantly and colourfully expresses his frustration in failing to get on canvas what his eye sees. When he complains he says “fuck” and the word comes out as “phuck-ah,” with the second syllable carrying the full weight of his emphatic despondency. Then he puts his head in his hands in a standard gesture of hopelessness. “Just so you know it is impossible to ever finish a portrait,” he tells Lord a third of the way through the sessions. “So what we’re doing is meaningless and impossible.” This profound doubt is a refrain that runs throughout the movie.

I should say something about another presence not listed in the credits but which plays a significant role in the film’s tone and texture. From the earliest shots, Giacometti’s Montparnasse studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron functions like a non-talking character. The studio was constructed in a sound studio in England (all the Paris locations were filmed in London). Giacometti moved to the studio in 1926 and continued to occupy it until his death 40 years later. It was only 23 square metres with high ceilings and had no running water until the late ’50s. A legendary space, everyone who visited commented on it. Simone de Beauvoir described it as “submerged in plaster”; Jean Genet said it was “sunless, dim and chaotic, made of worm-eaten wood and grey powder”; while the art historian Michael Peppiatt wrote that the studio “crystalized his work, personality and life into a single compact space.”

Tucci picks up this idea of the space and the work being one and the same, and he and his production designer and set decorator use many of the photographs taken of the studio by Ernst Scheidegger as models for the built studio. They even find a way to activate certain of the still images in the film. At one point Rush is working on a plaster sculpture, and as he adds slip the camera pans down and we see globs of wet plaster falling to the studio floor and splashing onto Alberto’s pants. It is a Scheidegger photograph brought to life. When Lord arrives on the day of the first sitting, we see the studio from his point of view as he scans the space, which is populated by dozens of white plaster sculptures surrounded by close-in walls that are scrabbled and scribbled on. As viewers we seem to breathe in the atmosphere and you feel your lungs fill with dust.

At the same time that Tucci deals with space in the film, he also gets to play with time. We are made conscious of its passing from the beginning. Lord arrives for what he assumes will be a single session and encounters a world that operates according to its own rules and at its own tempo. Alberto works on a bust of a man’s head, pressing his fingers into the wet clay, and Diego enters with a columnar pedestal for an already completed sculpture. “How’s this?” he asks his brother, whose response sets a tone for the attitude he will consistently hold towards his own work. “The base is perfect,” he says in Italian. “My sculpture is shit.” As Diego walks out Lord looks at his watch. It is the first reminder that time, for Giacometti, has a particular and uncompromising rhythm. When we first meet Caroline, Alberto’s mischievous model and mistress for the last three years, she brings him a wristwatch as a present. There are also activities that take place in real time; before he begins to paint, we watch Alberto mix black, white and yellow ochre on his palette. It takes the time it takes. Later in the sessions Alberto and Lord go for their customary lunch. Lord orders a Coke and the waiters bring Alberto his usual meal consisting of eggs, ham, two cups of coffee and two glasses of wine. Rush actually consumes the lunch, and two minutes later they have left the café and are on their way back to the studio.

During one expletive-rich sitting Alberto declares things are going so badly that “there’s no question of ever finishing it.” When Lord asks, “Then, why are we here?” Giacometti says, “It’s what I deserve I suppose after 35 years of dishonesty.… All these years that I’ve been showing things, they were all unfinished.” The lament shows the expansiveness of time; frustration over one portrait is able to be amplified into a lifetime of failure.

Time’s measure can be both dark and funny, sometimes both at the same time. One of Giacometti’s obsessions is mortality and it leads him to speculating on death. He tells Lord that he thinks about suicide every day and then begins to consider different ways of ending a life: cutting your throat from ear to ear (shades of his malignantly complex bronze sculpture, Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932); pills (“but that’s not really suicide, that’s just sleeping”). Then he settles on his favourite, “burning yourself alive. That would be something. That I would really like to do.” But then he realizes the shortcoming of a project that can be done only once. Completing anything is contrary to the psychological frame within which Giacometti operates, so the talk of suicide stays only at the level of talk and is quickly dismissed.

When he died Giacometti was famous and his life and art had been well documented. The world’s greatest photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Alexander Liberman, had taken pictures of the artist and his art and, as a result, we know what he and his world looked like. Final Portrait does an admirable job in providing that believable likeness, but what it adds to the photographic record, rich as it is, is a sense of the psychological demands of making art that Alberto had to respond to throughout his life. “All I’m trying to do is to show the way things appear to me, but I’m unable to do that. When I was young I thought I could do everything. When I grew up I realized I could do nothing. That’s what kept me going.” Stanley Tucci’s respectful and careful film gives us considerable insight into the practical and emotional stress generated from that sense of unavoidable incompletion. Final Portrait isn’t the final word on the anxieties of being Giacometti, or any artist, but it’s an engaging place to start that conversation. When he stops working on the portrait, Alberto tells Lord, “We’ve gone far. We could have gone further. But it’s something.” ❚

Volume 37, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #146, published June 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.