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Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003)
In theory, viewing Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring might sound about as enticing as watching paint dry. It tells a fictionalized tale of art history involving famed 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the peasant girl who inspires him to create his masterpiece. Its story of romantic repression and artistic inspiration is somewhat trite, especially in comparison to a superior film about painting like Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. As much as we understand Griet’s motivations, Vermeer himself remains something of a cipher, and as such, the film misses an opportunity to provide added insight into the artist’s mind and work. Nonetheless, in the telling of its tale, it manages at once to be surprisingly understated, but at the same time so passionately realized by Webber and his team, that its clichés are easy to forgive. Webber creates a convincing, cloistered environment in which the mere brush of another’s hand carries a mighty charge.
The director, like the painter in the film, seems to have found a muse in Griet. As played by Johansson, her face becomes a canvas onto which Webber casts sexual desire, intellectual curiosity, and the self-recrimination of her character’s lower class. Most of the thematic material that the slim, but attractive, Girl houses springs forth from watching Griet as she goes about her duties and tries to locate a safe place within her new household’s power struggle. Without speaking much at all, Johansson manages to convey the difficulties of Griet’s position, both emotional and physical. Furthermore, the talented young actress is able to become the compelling object of erotic obsession while purposely suppressing her striking looks. Thanks to a constraining uniform and makeup that warrants comparisons to Cate Blanchett’s radical transformation into Elizabeth, Johansson’s Griet is a being that seems to exist entirely in the past.
Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is exquisite, especially once one grows accustomed to the artifice inherent in the film’s photographic approach. Exaggerated light and shadows and striking compositions are used to heighten reality, giving the movie’s visuals the veneer of a Vermeer painting. This stylistic choice admirably puts the film’s environment at a mild remove from the authentic, which lessens the negative impact one might feel when it becomes apparent that the vast majority of the action occurs in one small home. What is perhaps most striking about the film’s look, however, is that the detail and artistry of the Vermeer paintings that are shown (which are both actual and recreated) seems more vivid than the shots of reality. For all of its pretense and reverence, it is humble of Girl to recognize that it exists in the service of a greater artist’s legend.