One of the finer bits of filmmaking in the 20th century came late in Stanley Tucci's "Big Night," a raucous comedy that ended with a quiet masterpiece of staging and acting, as two brothers - played by Tucci and Tony Shalhoub - made eggs together in ritualistic morning silence. Photographed so their dancelike movements were on full display, they communicated in body language and facial expression what conventional filmmakers would have spelled out with reams of bulky and redundant dialogue.
Tucci brings similar restraint and taste for subtlety to his latest directorial effort, "Final Portrait," which includes a similarly wordless sequence. This time, the setting is the Paris studio of sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti as he and brother Diego (Shalhoub again) move amid the easels, rags and creative detritus with the reflexive, instinctive ease of ballet dancers embarking on a familiar pas de deux.
Such moments are among the more pleasing in "Final Portrait," which focuses on the end of Giacometti's career, when in 1964 he invited author and arts-scene gadfly James Lord to sit for a painting. Considered by many critics to be Giacometti's last great picture, the artwork emerges slowly through the course of a film that depicts the creative process, not as the fully formed expression of genius, but as a slow-going daily grind of false starts and bouts of self-doubt.
Films about painters are notoriously difficult to get right. There's often too much theatrical brush-jabbing and pretend-thoughtful scowling. But Tucci banishes those cliches in a finely observed character study that possesses the ring of careworn, unprettified truth.
Most of the credit for that sense of authenticity goes to Geoffrey Rush, who portrays Giacometti in a performance that is ferocious and abashed, capturing the leonine Great Man as he enters the winter of old age, declining virility and impending death. Smoking incessantly, his face as rough and rutted as his own famously attenuated sculptures, Rush's Giacometti frets and fusses, unable to admit that his painting might be good enough. But "Final Portrait" suggests his inability to let go might have less to do with perfectionism and the tyranny of one's own aspirational ideals than primal anxieties having to do with endings in all their forms.
Compared with Rush's funny, touching, sometimes confounding performance, Armie Hammer isn't nearly as natural as the proper, stiffly deferential Lord. Tucci stages much of "Final Portrait" in the artist's studio, designed as a chiaroscuro collection of layered grays and chalk-whites against which Lord's spotless navy jacket stands out like a primly strait-laced rebuke.
The film comes to most animated life when visitors drop by: the long-suffering Diego with clients and money that Alberto treats like so much mattress-stuffing; the artist's wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud); and his mistress, a prostitute named Caroline (Clemence Poesy), whose presence in his life is alternately anarchic and soothing. One of the movie's finest scenes simply records a typical Giacometti lunch, which he seems to inhale in one unbroken, prodigious act of consumption, from the first glass of wine to the second hastily swallowed espresso.
Rather than probe Giacometti and Lord's curiously arms-length relationship, "Final Portrait" is at its best simply watching the artist work - the "artist," in this case, meaning both Giacometti and Rush. The same year that "Big Night" came out, Rush starred in "Shine," the movie that would win him an Oscar. It's been almost that long since audiences have seen him tuck into and dominate a role with such thoroughgoing forcefulness and charisma. It's nice to see him get the palette and canvas he deserves.