Pearls Before Swoon

Scarlett Johansson: Purty azza pitcherA one-two film punch like Lost in Translation into Girl with a Pearl Earring is the kind of combo careers are made of (let’s just never mind The Perfect Score and figure two out of three ain’t bad). And Scarlett Johansson is just the kind of girl to deliver the goods on the combo, ya hear.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is the sort of dreamy slow drama that drives ‘em away in droves, and as is proper for such a thing it’s exquisitely beautiful. With lush set decoration that brings Peter Greenaway to mind (but absent the deviant disturbing sex), director Peter Webber makes a clever and interleaved picture of pictures, about pictures, in pictures. He lards his larder with rich images of leaded glass and period cookstuffs (we’re in 1665, folks), balancing cramped rooms and caged light with the constant feral threat of empyreal visions. Webber’s unobtrusive camera sometimes sits still just long enough for you to think, “That’s like a painting, it’s so familiar,” and then it glides on, back into story.

Art for art’s sake is a passionate game in stuffy Delft, and pretty young housemaid Griet (Johansson) is the sudden strike that leaves the household of the master painter Johannes Vermeer in turmoil and disarray. The conceit of Tracy Chevalier‘s novel, from which the film is drawn, is that Vermeer painted his hottie servant as the unnamed model in his famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” sublimating his desire for the girl in the weave of pigments and creating an anonymous masterpiece which gazed straight into eternity. This notion is probably not true – this excellent Vermeer site has a boatload of information on the subject – but the web of erotic intrigue the author and director weave around it is captivating.

Late in the film Griet comes to a joining of paths. Two of the directions she might go are closed off, and of the two remaining – each representing, The Lady or the Tiger style, a very different future – either would satisfy one or another itch. It’s a moment of supreme satisfaction. Where will she go? The camera lingers long enough to let you feel the power of the choice, in a visceral and confusing way. Film school students will note that Johansson is standing on a covered circle, a stand-in for the camera’s lens, or the audience’s gaze, or the artist’s eye. Or all three.

Colin Firth is terrific as Vermeer, the artist who is the mediator for and not the director of his visions; but I kept seeing Brad Dourif in the role, somehow. Cillian Murphy is the right sort of hunk and beautifully underplays (and embodies) the meaty call of life as the romantic foil of few words. The storyteller’s hand is appropriately heavy in making him the son of a butcher. Johansson is sculptural and pale, and Webber’s fascination with her mouth is enthralling for us in the dark house, too. Unlike Angelina Jolie’s notorious lips, though, Scarlett’s actually look like they are part of her face. The best of the visions is Judy Parfitt as the family matron; in her great ruff and black skullcap she is a portrait made flesh, and her eyes pierce and flash with skill and power.

Then off it was to burlesque at the Slipper Room. Which seemed a properly carnal response to such thoughtful pursuits.

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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