SXSW 2018: ‘Final Portrait’ a look at the frustrations of creating art, with Armie Hammer as the muse

“Final Portrait.”

Let’s say you’re going to make a movie about the celebrated 20th century artist Alberto Giacometti, and you’re going to set the film in his Parisian studio, while he’s painting the portrait of a young man who’s not only an admirer but also his future biographer.

That’s what Giacometti did with the well-bred, upper-class writer James Lord, who eventually wrote a memoir about the experience, “A Giacometti Portrait.”

One of the first things you’ll need to have is a first-rate set, with detailed reproductions of the artist’s famed elongated sculptures and other items. And if you’re going to sustain the movie, you’re obviously going to have to have good dialogue. And you’ll need even more. You’ll need characters coming into the studio over and over again, gradually revealing the lives of the artist and the subject.

That’s what happens in Stanley Tucci’s new film, “Final Portrait,” which made its debut Friday night at South by Southwest. Geoffrey Rush stars as Giacometti, while Armie Hammer, fresh off acclaim for “Call Me by Your Name” and honors from the Austin Film Society, plays Lord.

To Tucci’s credit, the movie flows well. The dialogue isn’t as snappy as that in a play by Edward Albee or David Mamet, but the intrusion of characters during the portrait sessions provides lots of tension, humor and sadness.

First, there’s Giacometti’s wife, Annette, played by the wonderful French actress Sylvie Testud, virtually unknown in the U.S. despite her pairing with Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose.”

She’s a rather sad presence in “Final Portrait,” mainly because she plays second fiddle to Giacometti’s favorite prostitute, Caroline (Clemence Poesy).

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And then there’s Giacometti’s wry brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), who offers his own interpretation of events as they unfold before Lord’s rather stoic posing.

The heart of the movie, however, lies in the bond between Giacometti and Lord. Giacometti repeatedly paints over the portrait of Lord, telling him that it’s not right, that it’s a failure, that it might always be a failure. But Lord keeps coming back, for session after session, finally wondering when the posing and the painting will ever end.

For Giacometti, it’s a classic artistic problem – that the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.

So it’s up to Lord to figure out a way to end the sessions, without offense, without recriminations but with collegiality.

It’s a delicate minuet. And Tucci, who gets fine performances from Rush and Hammer, manages to pull it off. It won’t please the blockbuster crowd. It’s a subtle rumination on the creation of art.

“Final Portrait” premiered at SXSW on Friday. It screens again at 9 p.m. Saturday at the AFS Cinema. Grade: B

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