Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express.

Last semester I took a seminar dedicated to Johannes Vermeer. For months I read hundreds of pages every week about Vermeer's work, his scanty biography, his hypothetical intentions and methods, his hometown of Delft, and his artistic contemporaries. So now I'm kind of a Vermeer expert. Naturally my newfound expertise coupled with my long-held love of movies had me itching to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film I'd only seen in my nascent stages as an art historian. I did read the book last year, though, so that was still sort of fresh. Anyway. The film reveals a completely theoretical snippet of the artist's life, through the eyes of an imagined servant named Griet (Scarlett Johannson). Quietly and anxiously navigating the tempestuous household of the Delft master (Colin Firth), who is struggling financially and must contend with an ever-growing brood of children and a jealous wife, Griet finds herself the lustful desire of Vermeer's main patron, Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The young woman switches from secretly working as her master's assistant to secretly posing for him in a special portrait meant for van Ruijven's private cabinet.

The thing about Vermeer is that we really know so very, very little about him. His mystery is his legacy, and it will remain a major factor in the continued fascination so many have for the man. His work is stunning, and progressive, and engrossing, and there isn't much of it. Scholars who study him often become obsessed with him, as do plenty of more casual art lovers and artists themselves (Salvador Dali is especially known for his Vermeer fanaticism). And I get it! I do. His paintings have this enigmatic stillness that holds you so close you have to fight to look away. Girl with a Pearl Earring especially is known for her steady, mysterious gaze- is her look flirtatious? Questioning? Seductive? Anxious? Judgmental? I'm told it's even more captivating in real life, though I've never had the pleasure of seeing it. Using the knowledge and evidence that has been gathered about Vermeer's life and surroundings, Tracy Chevalier wrote a thoughtful, well-researched, but necessarily fictitious story about the titular girl, and the painter behind her unblinking stare.

The film, of course, cuts down the source material and changes some things around, but does maintain most of the core concepts and most of all its quiet, pensive storytelling approach. Director Peter Webber approaches his tale like a Vermeer painting, choosing to show instead of tell, creating a lush but still atmosphere with rich colors and close, intimate camerawork. Johansson carries the narrative with her expressive face, moving about this creepily Catholic house (a religion practiced illicitly in the Netherlands but condoned by the state) with a downturned eye and barely-contained wonder. I love how her rise as his apprentice allows us to see some of his hypothetical methods, with detail given to the process of mixing paints and one of my favorite Vermeers, Woman with a Water Pitcher, shown in various stages of development. I'm of the camp that thinks his use of the camera obscura was highly unlikely though, so it's too bad this movie continues that myth.

Vermeer's biography is given some unnecessary or unfounded elements, but there's enough room for any writer to fabricate his day-to-day life since so little is known about him. While I look at the film now with a more critical eye, I still really enjoy the central story of Griet, who is the actual protagonist. There's an undercurrent of sexual and spiritual awakening in her experiences that binds the slow, understated narrative together. Her uncertain relationship with her master and her grudging romance with persistent butcher Pieter (Cillian Murphy with a horrific hairstyle) balance out the plot structure as she struggles morally and emotionally. But it's not centrally a romance, it's more about Griet's journey as a young woman coming into herself, opening herself up to new experiences and discovering a natural artistic eye. She gains self-confidence and sexual boldness, allowing her to leave a life of servitude under abusive employers to strike out on her own. This is a story about Vermeer, sure, but as the title suggests, it's primarily a story about that alluring girl with a pearl earring and her mysterious, confrontational gaze.


Pair This Movie With: I'm not sure, I suppose another dainty period piece with pretty dresses and meaningful stares and lots of white people? Yeah that could work! Or another artsy film, I have a few on my Art on Film page over yonder even though I'm kind of hilariously bad at watching movies about famous artists, like I haven't seen seen Pollock.


  1. I first saw this film at a special screening on my birthday at the Atlanta Museum of Arts as it's a truly remarkable film. Notably for Johansson's performance which I think is her best performance of her career so far.