Geoffrey Rush even makes watching paint dry fun

Final Portrait
Written and directed by Stanley Tucci
90 minutes, rated M
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Turns out watching paint dry can be fun. In 1964, in Paris, the American writer James Lord sat for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss-Italian artist who was by then world famous, and two years away from his death.

Any biopic about an artist has two big problems: is the artist knowable, and if so, does it follow that the work is knowable? Most biopics never get to the second question. If the artist died young, beat his wife or shot heroin, that's enough. Better if you have all three, but not quite necessary.

We don't need to pierce the art then, just the bad behaviour. Some films rise above that, like Pollock, to take a good run at the art itself. Most fail, because the artistic process is ultimately mysterious. You could watch a four-hour film of Hemingway writing and still have no idea how he did it.

In Final Portrait, actor/director Stanley Tucci gives a lesson on solving, or at least finessing, these problems. He has help, in that James Lord wrote a book about the experience of sitting for Giacometti, so we can enter the story through his narration.

As James Lord (Armie Hammer) weaves though Montparnasse on his way to his first sitting, we get a series of cliches: an American preppy in blue coat and cream slacks, wearing a tie, gliding elegantly through narrow streets, past cafes crammed with colourful people. The music is piano accordion, for gosh sakes. As he enters Giacometti's studio, the music cuts, rupturing the cliche. It's dank, grey, filthy, a proper garret that looks like it hasn't been cleaned since 1900.

Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) sits on an unmade bed, smoking a cigarette. He shuffles into the studio, across from the bedroom. He is stooped, his wiry grey hair a bit like one of his own scribbly portraits. The lines in his face make him seem ancient and sad. The artist's brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) hovers in a housecoat, bending wires around long poles that will become sculptures. He's as warm as Alberto is cold. Giacometti's wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) welcomes the writer - Alberto's latest victim, she calls him.

Tucci's casting is impeccable. Rush can make anything and anyone funny without losing the seriousness, the tumult, of the character. He's drily droll here, for as long as he needs to be to capture us.

He makes the role a pantomime: carefully composing his sitter, applying a few strokes of paint before giving up with a resounding "farrr-keh", hitting the last sound like it's a French word. It's impossible; no one can do portraiture after the invention of photography; let's give it a few days and if it stinks, I will give up painting forever, he groans.

Lord, at first flattered, moves through about 10 stages of disillusion as the days drag on. Someone is waiting for him in New York; he keeps having to change his plane ticket. He wants to leave but he can't. After all, this is Giacometti.

The action barely leaves the studio but it's never dull. When the artist goes out at night to drink wine with Caroline (Clemence Poesy), a prostitute with whom he is obsessed, Tucci makes these scenes as warm and joyous as the studio is grey and painful.

Do we penetrate Giacometti's greatness? Maybe. Almost. We learn a lot about his process and frustrations, his perfectionism, ambition and egotism; we understand his need for chaos and obliteration, both of himself and the work. Tucci takes us through what is knowable and doesn't pretend to offer more. But that's honest, and the film is rich with humanity, humour and a deep sense of why art is important. Could we ask for more?

This story Geoffrey Rush even makes watching paint dry fun first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.