The Film at Berlinale Celebrating the Inherent Mystery of Painting

When it comes to capturing reality, a photograph is relatively easy. You point the camera and you click; thus capturing reality in a frame. When it comes to painting, as Cézanne and Picasso pondered over for their entire lifetimes, figuring out what constitutes reality can be something of an endless question. Yet, this discontent with perfection is what spurs on some of the greatest artists — repeatedly reinventing themselves until they get it right… if they ever get it right. The film Final Portrait sees how the great Alberto Giacometti was never satisfied with what he had, in the process becoming one of the most celebrated painters of his era. Here’s why you have to watch it.

What Do You Do When Everything Has Been Done?

Final Portrait
From Final Portrait, 2017

The film is set in 1964 Paris, after the revolutions of Cubism, Dadaism and Abstract expressionism. It’s a time when artists were wondering how to paint, as the history of impressionistic representation, from Turner to Pollock, had reached it’s natural endpoint. Giacometti, played by an incomparable Geoffrey Rush, seems to be at an impasse. His personal life is in a shambles, juggling his attention between wife and mistress, downing endless glasses of wine, and chain-smoking cigarettes instead of breathing. When James Lord (Armie Hammer) comes along, Giacometti decides to paint him. The resultant film works like a comic version of La Belle Noiseuse — minus the extreme length and the sexual tension. One person poses for a painting, another paints him, and together key lessons are learned about the relation of art to life.

“Fail Again, Fail Better”

Final Portrait
From Final Portrait, 2017.

With shades of Beckett (“fail again, fail better”) and more pauses than a Pinter play, Final Portrait uses absurdism to its advantage; combining fatalism with French New Wave techniques to create a paean to the endless mysteries of creating the perfect painting. Its comic repetitiousness is its strength, using the form of black comedy in order to express its theme of constant reevaluation of the same object over and over again. A telling scene is when Giacometti is in his little alcove, staring at the branches above him and thinking that today they look much different than they ever did. After all, it is one’s perspective that changes the world just as much as one’s surroundings. It shows any aspiring artist that there is never too many times to keep on considering the same thing. After all, how many apples did Cézanne paint?  

The Cast Are Excellent

Final Portrait
Final Portrait, 2017

Arie Hammer nails playing the subject James Lord expertly, with a mixture of extreme curiosity natural to all writers, and frustration natural of all men who want to go home to the person they love. They are complimented by Clemencé Poesy as Giacommeti’s turbulent mistress, Sylvie Testud as his embittered wife, and Tony Shalhoub as his quiet and wise brother. Together they form an ensemble that play off one another in the spirit of Godard’s Band Á Part, seemingly referenced in a driving scene scored to the French pop music of that era. To see such technique in a Hollywood film is a refreshing revelation. 

There Are No Easy Answers

Final Portrait
Giacometti In His Studio. Courtesy of The Estate of Alberto Giacometti

The best thing about the film is that it gives no one easy solution to the problem of making art, or why it is so hard to do it well. Instead, it is a celebration of the process, with all attendant extemporising, crossing out, reevaluating, swearing, complaining and temporarily giving up that it entails (this is reflected in the making of the film itself: Stanley Tucci took ten years to get the necessary funding.) It shows that art is not so much about getting it right, but about getting it wrong: again and again and again.  

The painting itself, which can be bought at Christies, is now worth between $310,000 to $450,000.

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