American author and art critic James Lord (Hammer) is in Paris, 1964, and befriends moody Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (Rush) and his brother Diego (Shalhoub). Alberto convinces James to sit for a portrait, which he promises will take "a few hours – an afternoon" at the most. However, as Alberto begins to doubt his skill the portrait is restarted again and again, forcing the increasingly irritated James to continually postpone his flight home…
It's not often that actor Stanley Tucci steps behind the camera (only three movies sit between this and his 1996 debut Big Night) but when he does he always turns in quiet and – for want of a better word – small films. Final Portrait is a little underpowered, and doesn't have the finale one would hope for, but for its duration Tucci ensures that all eyes are on Rush's studied performance and all ears on the director's amusing dialogue, which subtly equates this endless life and his forever-unfinished art.
While there are more active moments like when James and Alberto stroll through the park or cemetery, or when the frustrated and incensed artist careens around his workshop, Final Portrait is essentially two men sitting very still in a room. Tucci, aware that this may not be visually engaging, does what he can to make what happens on the screen memorable: He incorporates a handheld style, giving the scenes more edginess that they would have on the page, and ensures that the workshop catches the eye. It looks gutted, like it suffered a fire a decade ago and the brothers didn't bother to remodel: among the carelessly scattered canvasses and half-finished sculptures, grey dominates. There's death (Giacometti would die two years later) and life (his art) in this studio.
The wonderful Rush, looking just as dreary, fits right in: his drawn face and clothes as drab and forlorn as the ash that droops from the cigarette that perpetually hangs from his mumbling mouth. Rush shuffles about the place, head bowed, only bursting into life when he makes an incorrect stroke – "Ah fack!" would wake a dozing Hammer up – or when prostitute/friend/muse/lover Caroline (Clémence Poésy) shows up, which irks his ignored wife Annette (Testud) no end.