A Vermeer for our time

A painting yields lessons on art and life.

Jan 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Art inspires art. It’s not unusual for a painting to stimulate great thoughts or even a whole novel. When writer Tracy Chevalier felt a story emerge while gazing at a poster of Jan Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, she claimed, “Vermeer had done all my work for me.” A novel was born. From oil on canvas to black and white text and finally to living, breathing celluloid, Vermeer’s 17th century masterwork continues to ride through time.

Set in the mid-1600’s town of Delft, Holland, the film follows the footsteps of Greit (Scarlett Johansson), a young girl forced to become a housemaid due to her family’s dire straits. She joins the Vermeer household’s inner workings with the other servants, the Vermeer children, his mother-in-law and his nervous wife, who has good reason to be apprehensive. They all live under the shadow of Vermeer’s patron (and primary source of income), a man who derives perverse enjoyment from the economic power he holds over the family. Soon after her arrival in the penny-pinching household, we see Greit is already sympathetic to the aesthetic necessities of the artist when she asks her mistress if she should clean the windows in his studio because “... it may change the light.” It’s only a matter of time before Master Vermeer recognizes a kindred spirit within his walls.

Very little is actually known about Vermeer, leaving his story wide open for a writer’s imagination. The best sources of information on the man are his paintings, known for their luminous surfaces, exquisite textures and ethereal representations of light, visual aspects that director Peter Webber and cinematographer Eduardo Serra took to heart. As if watching a gallery of 17th century Dutch paintings come alive, the images radiate with intensity, whether it’s from the extreme golden glow of candlelight next to brown-black shadows, or the soft, diffused blanket of natural light against a young girl’s skin. And thanks to Olivia Hetreed’s terse and visually motivated screenplay, we’re given the room to drink it all in.

Coming off her recent success with Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson says next to nothing in this film, conveying her thoughts and emotions instead like a living painting. No one needs to tell us what’s improper behavior between a servant girl and her master, we hear it in Johansson’s quiet gasps and see it in subtle rushes of heat and scandal shown in her complexion and expression.

Her character, Griet, is our outsider view into the enigma of the painted image. She looks at the beginnings of a painting and is puzzled because nothing is the right color. Vermeer explains the need for this, and then asks her what color the clouds are. She looks and answers, “White. No — not white. Yellow, blue and gray.” Vermeer responds, “Now you understand.” Through their interaction, the film works as an art lesson, as the painter trains the girl’s eye to overcome her mind.

Colin Firth is the perpetually brooding Vermeer, having to harness his passions within the stark acceptable behaviors of the time. Next to Johansson, Firth is the embodiment of her shadow, the dark figure behind the light Greit intercepts. Together they create a tension that needs no words to draw you in. He can’t help but fall in love with his subject; it’s an artist’s hazard.

Behind each masterpiece is a story with turmoil, swirling passions, guilty looks, secrets and truths slipping through slightly parted lips. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a stolen glimpse around dark doorways into the intense, colorful birth of a great creation.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-3237.

Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].