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Wednesday, April 21, 2004
The brush never lies
What's in a gaze? It's impossible to view Johannes Vermeer's most beloved work, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (aka "Girl in a Blue Turban," 1665), and not wonder what's in that girl's look. Her eyes, cast over her shoulder squarely on the person painting her; her lips, slightly apart, on the verge of something, but revealing nothing with certainly. Look at it one way and you can almost see a smile forming, a tentative tenderness creeping in. But look again and you'll find an unsettled skittishness, a hesitation at giving herself up to the canvas.
Little is known of Vermeer's history, other than he was a struggling artist in mid-17th-century Holland. As such, his work retains its mystery more than 300 years later. That hasn't prevented speculation as to its origins, though. A 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier imagined the Vermeer household and a maid who came to sit for the portrait, and former documentary filmmaker Peter Webber has now brought the scenario to life in "Girl With a Pearl Earring." While some may wish to let the painting remain an enigma, Webber does a good job at extrapolating from history to give us one possible story behind that look.
The heart of the film is what transpires between artist and model, an intimacy that has fascinated filmmakers, who share a sometimes similar relationship with their cast (albeit a crowded film set lacks the tension involved in a one-on-one relationship behind closed doors). From the beginning, cinema imagined this relationship as one of lovers -- from Paul Granville and his cabaret floozy model in 1918's "Revelation" to Emmanuelle Beart sitting nude for Michel Piccoli in 1991's "La Belle noiseuse." But "Girl With a Pearl Earring" takes a different tack, showing us art as sublimated lust, where it's the frisson of acknowledging an attraction while knowing at the same time that it can never, will never be.
It's in this sense that the film echoes "Lost in Translation," and not just because Scarlett Johansson stars here as well. The tension between the older male and the younger woman, so pathetic in films with Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood, takes on a wistful melancholy in these films, a brief meeting of souls that can only say, in another time, another place, we could have been something.
Johansson plays Griet, a young woman who's forced to work as a servant when her father loses his eyesight. She's employed by the Vermeer household, ruled with an iron hand by the painter's mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt). The family is fairly well-off, but Vermeer's reduced output of late has tightened the purse-strings, which annoys his wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), to no end. Another maid ominously informs Griet of her employers' tempers: After Vermeer hocked some of Catharina's jewels to pay off debts, she flew into a rage and tried to wreck one of his paintings. She hasn't entered his studio since.
One of Griet's duties is to clean this studio, a secluded space tucked away at the end of a corridor on the top floor. "Disturb nothing" is what Catharina commands, and Griet obliges, even hesitating to clean the dusty windows, fearing it may "change the light." It's this sensitivity -- an artistic precociousness perhaps not justified by the script -- that eventually attracts the attention of Vermeer, when he makes a delayed, second act appearance.
Played by Colin Firth ("Love, Actually"), Vermeer is a curt, intense man, not unaware of his ability to command attention. He stumbles upon Griet bathed in a window of sunlight in his musty studio. He makes her hold a pose by the window, his gaze inescapable. Griet is like a deer caught in headlights, a wide-eyed blend of nervousness and wonder that Johansson keeps in place for the whole film.
Some time later, a new painting emerges, a figure by that window. It's a blatant seduction, Vermeer letting Griet know that she can be his muse. But Griet knows better. She has heard the stories of other girls, of babies born out of wedlock. She wants in on the art -- learning to mix paint, offering tips on composition and finally sitting for a portrait -- but she resists the complications, for she knows that an affair would risk her job, and hence the survival of her family. When Vermeer tells her to take off her cap, she refuses to show him her hair. (And it's somewhat ironic, in light of the current debate in France over Muslim headscarves, to see that Christian Europe once held similar views regarding feminine beauty and temptation.)
The tension builds, not only between Griet and Vermeer, but also between Griet and Catharina, who recognizes what's going on, and Maria Thins, who -- like any business-minded impresario -- recognizes the necessity of keeping the artist producing, no matter what. There's also Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer's patron who commissions the portrait of Griet. The film imagines him to be much like the money-men of contemporary movies and music: A coarse, rapacious type whose support of art is largely related to the amount of prestige and sex it can get him. "How hard can it be to paint a pretty girl?" he taunts Vermeer, before asking flat out, "Can I have her?"
It's here that Vermeer, in deciding to protect Griet from his patron, becomes hesitant, ashamed perhaps, to act on his own desires. Instead, he merely paints. It may be a postmodern sensibility -- post-blues, post-rock 'n' roll at any rate -- to insist that all great art is born of inner torment, but it's perfectly imaginable here. Just look at that gaze one more time and ask yourself not what the girl's eyes are saying, but what Vermeer's seeing in them.