Sat January 24, 2004
Girl with a Pearl Earring
I finally found a film about an artist that doesn't insult me.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
I finally found a film about an artist that doesn't insult me. I want to see the artistic process unfold, feel the artist's need for inspiration, and see him struggle with making paints and finding light. All this occurs in director Peter Webber's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," the best I have seen about an artist.
While Salma Hayek captures Frida Kahlo's bizarre personality in "Frida," and Ed Harris became Jackson Pollock's mad expressionist in "Pollock," neither film shows the process of inspiration and execution that "Girl" does. Seventeenth-century reclusive painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) comes out of the shadow almost half an hour into the film, a fitting metaphor for his secluded genius; Griet (Scarlett Johansson), household maid, inspires him to the chagrin of his clueless wife (Essie Davis) and to the growing admiration of his penurious mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt). The resulting famous painting of a girl with a pearl earring could be miraculous for the audience if only to see how much Johansson resembles the original girl.
But the joy of this fictional film is of two other parts: 1. Eduardo Serra's cinematography replicates in each frame the dark, moody portraits of the Baroque Era's Velasquez or Rembrandt or Vermeer himself. The stunning beauty of the shots is exemplified in the moment Griet theorizes that cleaning the windows would change the light and perhaps the outcome of his painting; you can understand how Baroque's complex forms and bold ornamentations were so dependent on window's light. 2. The minimal conversation between Vermeer and Griet intensifies their attraction and, when he sneaks a look at her hair, gives us one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed--nothing revealed but everything suggested.
In fact, neither lead has more than a page of dialogue for the entire film. But Johansson, as she did in "Lost in Translation," expresses so much with her face it is a shame to ruin it at all with spoken word. When Griet moves the chair Vermeer has been using in a painting, explaining it imprisoned his model, he has found a soul mate in a peasant, and the film has found an actress of surpassing subtlety whose visage is also worthy of immortality. When the two silently grind and mix the paints, the film, albeit a fiction, tells its complete aesthetic story of longing and suffering, the staples of inspiration.
Joseph Conrad caught the artistic joy and community of painting and film: "[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, of beauty and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation."
You'll rush to your nearest Prado to see what the baroque fuss is all about, then you'll remember you just saw it in two hours of soft, dark, sensual filmmaking. Master and maid have fulfilled the demands of romanticism without a dab of clich?. Nice work.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.