Final Portrait : A Film Review

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Final Portrait
Written and directed by Stanley Tucci, Cast : Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub and Sylvie Testud and is produced by Gail Egan, Nik Bower and Ilann Girard and executive produced by Deepak Nayar, Fred Hogge and Ted Blumberg.

Portrait of the artist by the sitter

The contemporary art world has its many critics and the American art critic James Lord is one who is here shown investigating the ambiguities and parallax views of abstraction and reality, through his invitation by Giacometti in 1964, into his studio to sit for a portrait. It follows James Lord interviewing Alberto Giacometti whose Swiss/Italian is a volatile mix of capitalist and socialist dogmatism. Giacometti sits lachrymose and reflective in the opening scene of their encounter at the Gallery which has as the exhibition title simply – Giacometti. With superb grace and fluid interpretation both Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer quickly set forward a relationship based on the repertoire of Giacometti’s work and James Lord as ‘spokesman’ for the outside world accepts the invitation into the world of Giacometti. Lord who is given through his own love of the work and appreciation, an entre nouses to the act of, in this case painting. Rarely will Giacometti have found someone to speak at length about his work while at the same time being the subject of it. The setting is in the Paris studio and its neutrality of colour produces a psychological difference to the other elements of the film which concern the outside life, contrastingly bright and vital with itself providing an unreal Paris of superficial at times Giacometti’s reality.

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Writers and Photographers

While the book on which this is based is itself a work which endures as criticism there were precedents. I have an edition (1996) hardback book by Photographer David Douglas Duncan who in 1957 did a very similar thing. His book is called Picasso paints a Portrait. It to follows the days chronologically as this films tracing out of time passes over. Poetically visual it deftly and precisely charts the process and an empathy emerges as it does with James Lord the inquisitior and the subject art of Alberto Giacometti in the human being. Giacometti seeks to inform how his work evolves yet the contrariness of both artists is evidenced, as well as ego concealed partially – less so in Picasso oeuvre – a gigantic sometimes overwhelming one – one which a note of caution is delivered by Giacometti in a midway mid-day stroll through the sunny graveyard he fondly uses as a basis for remaining ‘grounded!’. At the foot of this piece you will find some illustrations from that book. Two things stand out as key connections to the simple task in hand, their use of the wicker chair as symbol of today’s modernity and the other Egyptian influences. The ancient in tune with this ‘simplicity’ they cannot acquire except in a object of desire.
This film, Final Portrait is based on James Lords book, Giacometti : A Portrait, which many after seeing this will be seeking out to rehearse the insights we have here in a short time witnessed. The film has, like the title, two meanings and hemispheres. Cubism is to Giacometti one success which Cezanne spoke of as geometry speaking in everything. Cubes, Cylinders, Spheres. After all is trivial. This is also a point to collect a thought on Giacometti’s work which is linear and textured could not show the aforementioned but never recognisable instantly as being cubist.

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His early influences

Giacometti was a prolific student of drawing taught by his artist father and academy led with which he acknowledges his work was able to spring from and become the serious insightful presence of interpretation going back through a lineage to Egyptian art, Cycladic art, also work conceived by the African Dan tribe which eschewed literal by making symbolic protrusions, depressions, and which itself had no notion of itself as Artwork, more a record of the interior life’s present and enjoyed. Replicating the partially understood. So far and not beyond. Here in modern society we are blessed and equipped with tools of interpretation and also the comparison of work having gone before because this is the territory opened up by Gaicometti and our brief excursion into understanding it is part of the overwhelming wash of visual mental stimulation 21st century art through instragram, Pinterest, Google has put in front of us. There is no place it seems nowadays for things to be tentative as we know all too well the temporality of everything. Yet we revisit ad memoirium things and objects arrested moments. We love the memoriter.

There is one point in Giacometti’s life, very early on while he was in the tutelage of his teacher, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, when his first model, and love probably was sitting for him and he realised this – His approach was inspired by one model. In the winter of 1920 he began a sculpture of a friend with whom he was staying and, after six months of her sitting for the work, he suddenly realised a complete fracture between what he saw and what he could make. This crucial turning point became the reference for every artwork he subsequently created; he claimed every portrait after descended from this one piece – the film does place the same into the narrative exactly when James Lord first sits down.

There is an important point of change in his life which is the death of his and Diego’s father in 1933. He altered his work becoming more ‘ruminant’ perhaps is one way of expressing it.

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Plasticity of words and work

The words, not coined by his Catalogue writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘The figures were never for me a compact mass, but rather like a transparent construction.’ This was written in 1929 to Pierre Matisse on the pieces, Homme et Femme and more persuasively Femme Couche qui rêve (1929) which goes back to the African Dan tribe depiction of a woman and birth. It is telling that Giacometti relied on others as well as his tutors to remove the clouds around his art. Jean-Paul Sartre was trusted but he, Giacometti did depend on success or recognition at least to see it’s worth in continuing to work as he did. It was as most artists worth their salt dependant on shedding some insights on the world while their here.  He explodes at the point of a mark misplaced with the F word.  There is an ambiguity I saw in the latent homosexuality of Giacometti withstanding his prolific indulgence with the ‘fallen’ women he cherished.
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Hard discovery

He also took on the burden of thinking, as this film’s period shows the mortality and proximity and control one had over ones life. He disavowed while at the same time contemplated suicide but was in his bi-polarity state only briefly. Instead he devoured life around him and unlike Virginia Wolff was unable to attest to the sovereignty of life by ultimately cashing in her mind for, it is beyond us to see what state of mind took VW beyond the trouble she conceived existed around her. No explanation is offered into the needs and further explorations Giacometti needs to make except by the otherwise obtuse virtue of the title of the film. The Final Portrait.
As it is a test Giacometti put to himself which is voiced in the film I bring the Virginia Wolff discovery of herself unable to resist her choice in this final letter to her sister Vanessa Bell, herself a painter. “Sunday – Dearest, You can’t think how I loved your letter. But I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I shan’t get over it now. All I want to say is that Leonard has been so astonishingly good, every day, always; I can’t imagine that anyone could have done more for me than he has. We have been perfectly happy until these last few weeks, when this horror began. Will you assure him of this? I feel he has so much to do that he will go on, better without me, and you will help him. I can hardly think clearly anymore. If I could I would tell you what you and the children have meant to me. I think you know. I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer. Virginia.” This was ever a similar but converse reaction to the ‘final portrait’ Giacometti never gave up on achieving.

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Telling direction

The ‘Final Portrait’ is itself decided by the very accomplished writing and Directing of Stanley Tucci. His grasp of the subject is immense. He is able to take away the familiar work as it is of a different time. He knows he is dealing with the later matured Alberto. He therefore cannot use the familiar pieces or work to ‘familiarise’ us with the extent and immense groundbreaking work he had produced. Only one piece I have seen before – there are sketches and variations of small and human scale pieces which are in the studio – one in the courtyard depicts this drawings final realisation in the courtyard entrance at the beginning of the film. The work of the twenties, thirties, forties is virtually uncatalogued but ideas are plentiful as is reminiscent stories for James to absorb while being painted. It is revelatory in the time capsule. It shows the duality of the scheme of life between the existence and non existence.

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Form and structure.

Stanley Tucci is very astute in the delivery of this story. For its structure is easy to follow being based on a narrated daily journal of the sitting for the portrait. Day 1, Day 2 etc., and we are given a Film of two kinds. One is the easy chronological insight into the contemporary art world of the sixties and the emotional drivers of Giacometti through his loves and acquaintance’s. The story has love, familial compromise, conviviality, depression, joy, angst, joie de vivre, criminality, greed, regarde, consciousness, worldliness, humour, with very little disposition for effect.
The world is on the one hand depicted as a portrait of the artist with bourgeois representation and light touch Parisian gallic charm ruthlessly exploited with the musical pathos the serene views and historical significance of Liberté, égalité, fraternité and the Marseille Frenchness lightly painted for a film audience not to become vexed by the characters seen but warming to them in a symbolic way. The confronted, the confronted, the aesthete, the consort, the domicile, the contented. There are better representations but these token characterisations are employed here to imply the construct is made this way to give an audience its clear idea of being able to believe in the art and artist. The other way, the second, is Stanley Tucci delving into the very words Giacometti said about his work which he shows us is the basis of an insightfulness achievable through this two handed piece of portraitist and the sitter. In it is life explored. The arc of Alberto Giacometti is clearer for the method used.
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His studio

The studio is a back street 46 rue Hippolyte Maindron and it is what he tells his wife Annette – played beautifully, constrained and wild in equal measure and a devotee, by Sylvie Testud – as home. It is literally like a void only filled by the work and the presence of people. It has not affectation. A word he delights in using. Then there is the Café life, the Café Adrien which is more a fully developed restaurant. The outdoors comprises a few streets and occasional boulevard but mostly is the graveyard with its Mausoleum’s and Standing Gravestones. As well as this we meet in the studio the visiting lover and consort under no pretence of it being otherwise his favoured muse and adulteress Caroline played with coy affected joyfulness by Clémence Poésy. In one scene it is a place he visits disconsolate and adrift in search of the lost Caroline in which there are sheltered under the hood of deaths doorway heavily metaphorically the mistresses of petit morte.

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So his world is captured in a few locations and this allows the words to be expressed between James and Alberto. Ever watchful is Diego played by a very balanced Tony Shalhoiub his talented brother, talented in measurement, of the presentation and value of work who exercises influence whenever he can to see things do not get out of control. He also produces small pieces and lets them alone to exist as material objects not having apportioned value. Diego had a child which Alberto represented, un-childlike but as metaphor, in a famous sculpture which recognised love. Over the days their conversations become more complex and both become at ease. These illuminate the story as Stanley Tucci uses these periods to delve into the place of the primary issue being scoped out. That perhaps being the artists battle with the void in art which is seen in every sculpture and painting, sketch he produces. This emptiness has the force to be greater than its minimal presence. In the studio there is a collection which he either consoles himself with or as stimuli to create better versions of his works. It is a very sparse but cluttered space.

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James Lord is able to follow the painting process while continually, at his partners unamused confusion, postponing his departure and is able to extend for weeks, his insight observing and getting to know Giacometti. He is able to eventually discern which brush Alberto picks up and which stage of the process he’s at. Infuriatingly he also gets to understand the method of working is just working. That A Final Portrait can never be. He is conscious the work in a split second can be over done and then Alberto lifts another brush to put it to negative effect subtracting what he has worked.
The Working of this film has a duality is as I noted earlier. There are very persuasive actions, mostly achieved through the characters, of Tucci finding opportunities to place empathically the core person behind the career which is famously and at times misconstrued.  The tyranny of his loves, the tyranny of money, his oblique but absorbing view of the small habitué of his studio and district, the machinations of dealers some of whom he is very friendly with and grateful to as they recognise largely the work and they facilitate it reaching a wider audience than either his brother or he could contemplate spending time pursuing.

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Conclusion ####4

This is a fascinating film on a fascinating and visionary, special artist whose work as a Sculptor informed us and many other artists of the extremities and location of limits in the pursuit of a depiction of his reality which overlaps and underscores each and everyone of us capable of sight and observation.  The extent of his drawing is seen in the fact the film comprises in the main act of portraiture advancing.  There are two sides to it also – the futile and ordinary everyday particles comprising life which are oversaturated in light touch direction by this first main feature length film by the appreciative Stanley Tucci – then the intense part – the art and its delivery which is in negative tonal black and white colouration mainly.  It exceeds expectations and is much more than a depiction on film of a book by the highly astute observer, James Lord played brilliantly by Armie Hammer.  To act alongside Geoffrey Rush whose interpretation seems flawless, is itself a task well met.  Geoffrey Rush even gauges the walk, including at this time his limp from a car accident and short practices of working a clay or poster mix (the pieces are complex but textural) and his eye shows the sight and detail the work entails.  Also the framing is Giacometti like in its plainness and directness. Detail is examined and good touches of – what might have been difficult within a studios confined, cluttered space – is done with accomplished smooth ease.  It is a work of loving appreciation and as much accuracy and truthfulness such a journey takes or needs.  Beautifully crafted this will be seen as a highly effective insight to the master at work at leat in the window of the narrow time frame.  The exploration it seems it compels into the other work – Diego sat each day apparently for seven years and was his first and last subject – implies his figure is the everyman.  It is quite a unique piece of work in every sense.

John Graham

16 August 2017

Belfast.

FINAL PORTRAIT will screen at QFT Belfast from 18th August 2017 until 24th August 2017

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Influences

 

Annette and Caroline

 

Picasso

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