February 19, 2004

Girl With a Pearl Earring

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The art of eroticism is flat lining. Nothing about sex is sacred or mysterious anymore. For most of the R-rated fanfare, bare breasts and gratuitous, obdurate fucking are commonplace.

Perhaps that’s why I sat wide-eyed, heart pounding when Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a demure servant, turned her head and looked back over her shoulder, a solitary pearl dangling from her ear, as the famed painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) traced her form with gentle brush strokes.

Girl With a Pearl Earring may be the most sensuous examination of the erotic in art in years. While the film is dressed in both puritanical peasant garb and stiff, aristocratic vestments, underneath these it holds something wildly carnal.

The film follows Griet as she becomes a maid in Vermeer’s home. One day, while cleaning a window, Vermeer catches sight of her, and suddenly she is wrapped into Vermeer’s consciousness. Subsequently, Griet serves as Vermeer’s silent muse, gradually becoming drawn to him while being courted by the local butcher’s apprentice Pieter (Cillian Murphy) and drawing the enmity of Vermeer’s wife (Judy Parfitt).

It’s world, owing much to the auspicious direction by Peter Weber, is one of facades — its homes, artwork, and women glossed in ornaments, with the latter often treated as such. The result, like Vermeer’s works, is Baroque in tone. The imagery takes credence over a plot which is, for the most part, unbearably bourgeoise and undramatic. The only intense moments are those between Griet and Vermeer, their fascination with each other threating to shatter the divide between them. And while some images are sophomorically obvious in their meaning, others are so luminous and mysterious that they conjure up an eroticism that cannot be seen, only sensed.

At one point, Pieter asks Griet what her hair looks like. Late in the film, Griet sheds her puritan cap to reveal gorgeous auburn locks while Vermeer watches. The scene is so intensely sexual that it’s like an electrode charge fired directly int the brain.

While unremarkable, Johansson is just right, keeping Griet perpetually mysterious. She rarely talks, but her coy eyes speak verses. Firth lends darkness to the ambiguous Vermeer, and Tom Wilkinson makes a great turn as Vermeer’s seedy patron. However, the performances cannot overcome the towering visuals.

What sustains the film is Weber’s ability to transform the film into a Baroque work itself. There are several shots, frozen in time, where the line between film and painting is blurred, making it impossible to distinguish a constructed shot from the actual work itself.

But, like any painting, Webber’s film exists only on a canvas. The movie refuses to wade into the psyche. We know little about Griet and Vermeer, and are left to interpret them purely by their poses or facial expressions. This is a dangerous line to tow, as at times, the characters seem cold and distant. Yet there are moments, such as when Griet and Vermeer peer into a camera obscur