The True Meaning of Pictures

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' peeks under the Vermeer

"It's an image--a picture made from light," Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) explains to his maid and muse Griet (Scarlett Johansson) after the startled young woman has peered for the first time through his newfangled camera obscura in Girl with a Pearl Earring. Tracy Chevalier's 1999 source novel, an enamored speculation on the 17th-century Dutch master and the genesis of his titular portrait, is not only an exemplum of fan-fiction as high lit, but (however fleetingly) a rumination on the ancestral origins of photography.

Fitting, then, that the most obvious pleasures of Peter Webber's film version--as with John Maybury's essay on Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil, and Derek Jarman's Caravaggio--lie in cinematographic mimesis. Eduardo Serra's images summon Vermeer's flickering play of diffused sunlight and shadow, his ethereal halations--captured in the effulgent wink of the famous Girl's dangling jewel. Better still, each performer of this chamber piece presents a face worthy of his or her own Vermeer treatment. Johansson and Firth's celebrated visages frequently fill the screen, of course. But behold, too, Judy Parfitt as the artist's imperious mother-in-law, wielding granite jaw and smelting gaze, and Essie Davis as Vermeer's wife Catharina, a sulky china doll with impossible azure orbs and strawberry hair that could only be conjured from a painter's palette.

Back in real-life Delft, Vermeer made scant record of his mere 43 years on earth: Not a single piece of correspondence that he wrote or received survives today, though he did leave behind a mountain of debt, a prodigious brood of children (at least eight, perhaps as many as 11), and a precious cache of some 40 paintings. Focusing again and again on women lost or interrupted in mid-daydream amid familiar domestic surroundings, Vermeer found his great subject in what might be called enigmatic contemplation, and it occupies most of his waking hours in Girl with a Pearl Earring; holding to Griet's limited purview, the movie only projects generic creative torment and Heathcliffian allure onto Firth's stormy-eyed brooder. As Vermeer covertly enlists the illiterate Griet as his assistant and, eventually, his clandestine model, the film--embroidered by Alexandre Desplat's busily apprehensive score--becomes the unwritten diary of a chambermaid. Griet must also endure hard, repetitive labor, elude the suspicious spite of mopey Catharina and her meddling daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), and negotiate the vigorous advances of both a callow butcher's son (Cillian Murphy) and the lecherous patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), whose purchasing power leaves the entire extended household variously in his thrall.

Telling a thousand words: Scarlett Johansson in 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'
Lions Gate Films
Telling a thousand words: Scarlett Johansson in 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'

Proust once noted, quite arguably, that "passion and suffering and sex are banished" from Vermeer's art. Chevalier's book and, more openly, Olivia Hetreed's faithful screenplay strive to instate heritage-drama renderings of all three, planning many of the Vermeer-Griet encounters around erotic similes or substitutions. Foreplay is an intimate huddle beneath the curtains of the camera obscura. Griet disrobes by simply removing her cap, unveiling her taboo hair. The climactic penetration, naturally, is an ear-piercing.

As much animation as adaptation, Webber's film is impeccably surfaced, but it neglects a shapely indication of the central pair's instinctual aesthetic affinities--their courtship, so to speak. (By contrast, Chevalier's book arranges a charming introduction of boss and employee when Vermeer notices Griet's intricate set designs for chopping vegetables: "The colors fight when they are side by side, sir," she points out.) Johansson, so intelligently unmoored in Lost in Translation, again shoulders a largely passive, reactive role: Griet forever gasps and gapes in her master's presence. The lavish breathtaking further underlines the movie's muted but stubborn assumption that Vermeer's obsessive vocation has become a surrogate for forbidden upstairs-downstairs coitus.

 
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