Final Portrait

Directed by Stanley Tucci

This fine-looking and delicate chamber piece (literally – it’s mostly shot in the confines of a studio) tells of an encounter between artist and critic, Europe and America, old and young, when in early-60s Paris the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti embarked upon a portrait of his great admirer James Lord, a young American art critic. But it’s the great artist himself that the film soon becomes a portrait of. An affectionate study of a difficult man. Geoffrey Rush makes a fine Giacometti, his huge head and billowing features as compulsively hawk-like as so many of his creations. In contrast Armie Hammer’s open and classically handsome face, so apparently difficult to capture the essence of, is that of the innocent American beloved of so many stories of the hapless New World visitor bamboozled by wily Europe. Lord’s composed manner and neat suit-and-tie look are wildly at odds with the world of the artist he admires. Each time Lord enters the studio by its peeling blue door, which becomes almost a character in its own right, he steps into a different world, half magic, half frustratingly bereft of logic, where with his politeness and deference to the great artist he’s powerless.

The portrait just never gets finished, Giacometti perpetually crying an exasperated ‘FUCK!’ and painting out the work to start again. The imperfectability of art? The impossibility of capturing another person’s essence? Or, more likely, a power play as Giacometti tries to hold on to his sitter and prolong the project, hanging on to the affable relationship and pleasure of an admiring young person’s company? Lord becomes increasingly frustrated at not being able to get away back to his own life, and their relationship begins to take on aspects (though always good-naturedly), of a duel.

Though the dusty studio is the central point round which the drily amusing action pivots, there are other distractions: Alberto’s sensible brother Diego, a quietly brilliant performance by Tucci’s old co-actor from Big Night Tony Shalhoub; the women in Giacometti’s life, his chirpy faithful mistress and model Annette, (Sophie Testud) and ditzy Caroline (Clémence Poésy, whose seductively irregular teeth, by the way, show the utter folly of the current craze for dental perfection), who brings in a whiff of the dangerous Parisian underworld outside the blue door. And then there’s the heady look of the thing. Keeping a blue-grey palette throughout, Tucci has a real eye for the beauty of the worn and the down-at-heel, as well as pulling out some bravado shots of the frustrated Lord liberating himself into the liquid blue of the swimming pool, which at one point morphs into the gorgeous new ceiling of the Opéra. At 90 minutes it’s a perfect length for this snapshot of an episode of when two very different lives came together and nothing much happened, full of warmth and humour and the oddness and complexity of the creative process.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, August 2017

 

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P’tit Quinquin

A look back to Dumont’s earlier, more disturbing, comedy, as seen at the 2014 London Film Festival

If you’re acquainted with Dumont’s previous austere, disturbing work at all, you might be surprised, as I was, to see that this film is scheduled in the ‘Laugh’ strand of the festival. What’s more, it was made as a 4-part TV series, another thing that seems at odds with Dumont’s very cinematic style. Whatever it’s provenance, though, to me the 200 minutes was a box of delights – the best kind, the kind that occasionally snaps at your hand the further you dib in.

It tells of a series of increasingly bizarre crimes in the rural landscape of the northern French coast – a landscape we first see in all its unexceptional prettiness stretching beyond a large farmyard dungheap – as ominous as you like to make it.

Quinquin, played by the marvellous Alane Delhaye in as good a performance as I’ve seen all year, is a young rascal who lives on a farm near the crime scenes, a watchful, hard-faced scallywag in the mould of young Antoine Doinel of the 400 Blows, and just like Jean-Pierre Léaud, you can’t take your eyes off him every time he’s onscreen. But like many of the characters here, there are two sides to his nature, and his scenes with his great friend/love Eve he shows an almost unbearable tenderness. In fact their chaste embraces are some of the most intense and affecting I’ve seen for a long time onscreen. Together as they so often are with Eve riding on the back of his bike, they have the look of one powerful creature out of myth. Equally ambiguous is the local police chief Van de Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), a bumbling whimsical fellow with a vast and impressive range of facial tics, who nevertheless sometimes speaks wisdom, and seems to connect wih Quinquin.

Physical, or mental, quirks – though that really is putting it mildly – afflict so many of the characters: Quinquin’s Uncle Dany, newly returned from the mental hospital, staggers and whirls around the farmyard, perpetually on the point of falling. Quinquin’s grandfather sets the table by hurling china and cutlery onto it. The priest and his fussy sidekick giggle uncontrollably while conducting a funeral service (no one seems to mind) where the floppy-haired organist plays with as great a panache as if he were at an opera house. An English tourist throws an autistic tantrum inn a seaside café. A cousin of Eve’s, a kind of uber-scallywag, appears out of nowhere dressed as a kind of spiderman and hurls himself opimistically at walls, hoping to scale them. Wonderfully, one time it works. Even Carpentier, de Weyden’s sensible lieutenant, has fantasies about driving his police car on two wheels. And just when you’ve forgotten about it, he does. Most characters totter and stagger and go crooked, even the self-confident lads trip about over the shingle of the beach, as if there’s no stability, no real security on this earth.

Others are too still, troubled and impenetrable behind their odd faces. There’s a perpetual background of anomie (as demonstrated in a savage dodgem ride), and this takes over the film, a madness some what one would call clinical, some totally mundane, (never have majorettes or crap pop songs seemed so unnerving) and little sense of any distinction between. Animals have strange powers – are the cows really ‘mad’? And watch out for those pigs! La commédie humaine and la bête humaine inextricably entwined. This unsteady world is so fascinating that it distracts from the puzzle of the actual killings, which you almost forget about, it seems there can never be a solution.

Funny and frightening coexist in a sometimes savage way, but there are moments of great beauty too, such as the white horses, whose appearance is as numinous and affecting as were Quinquin and Eve’s embraces, and Van de Weyden’s half childlike half erotic delight in them is more touching than disturbing. Trapped in their modes of behaviour, so many are dealing with the great fissure between what is expected of them and what they are – Van Weyden ‘acts’ the policeman, the young moslem acts the fanatic when his attempts at being part of the community fail, the churchmen act their part but can’t sustain it. Seeing through these cracks is troubling and liberating. Only Eve seems untroubled, sound in her self belief. Though made as a 4-part series the whole thing seems to me to work perfectly as one single, intense, cinema experience.

The company of mostly first-time actors do wonders, but supreme is the young Delhaye as Quinquin, a face and a presence we have to see again.

Written October 2014