Scarlett Johansson has certainly done her tour of art-house duty this year, with a nomination for “Lost in Translation,” and the title role in Peter Webber’s film about the 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).
“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is a quiet film, one of subtleties where everything libidinal is subliminal; and like in that other film, Johansson plays a subject caught in platonic courtship.
This film is about the portrait that bears its title, one of the most enigmatic paintings of the artist’s career. Vermeer only completed some twenty-six paintings (twenty-eight by other counts) in his career, and the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” remains one of his most enduring puzzles.
Careful attention has been given to the materiality of her face, yet it reveals nothing about what the subject might be thinking-her mouth partly agape, it seems like she might be in the early formations of a smile, but one cannot tell for certain.
This is not a film that develops narratively, but rather spatially, as a painting would. Dialog is spare and little insight is given into the characters, resulting in the lack of traditional film development. The “girl” is given a name-Griet-and the first act of the film follows her through her mundane interactions.
The film is most effective as a meditation on the artistic process, and the film’s best scenes involve the camaraderie that develops between the artist and his servant. Griet is not a painter by trade but she seems to have the sensibility for it, even if she cannot fully articulate it.
A subplot involving her romance with a young butcher (Cillian Murphy) is extraneous and goes nowhere, perhaps an excuse to incorporate some sex into a film that is all subtext and no action. The demonizing portrayal of Vermeer’s chief patron, the arrogant Van Riujiven (Tom Wilkinson), is a bit over-the-top and belabors the point that the artist is always at the whim of his benefactor.
The money dictates what is painted, and if Van Riujiven wants a portrait of Vermeer’s serving maid, then he will get it- much to the consternation of the artist’s jealous and insecure wife, played by Essie Davis.
Vermeer has always been a fascinating subject among filmmakers and the French director Jean-Luc Godard has called Vermeer the “first filmmaker” because of his careful control of natural light and his use of an optical device called the “camera obscura” to help obtain naturalistic proportions.
The best aspect of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is the cinematography, and there are a handful of stunning shots that could have just as well been committed to canvas. Film is a medium that has always lent itself to other art forms, and this film is one of the best arguments for cinema as a “tableaux vivant” that I have seen without being excessively pretentious or dull.
At a running time of one hour and thirty-five minutes, it feels more like two hours. This film is a genuinely rewarding experience, if you have the patience for it-so it comes recommended for art enthusiasts only.