Girl with a pearl earring

The movie review is back from a brief summer break—I will try to keep writing this coming Autumn every other week, in a slower pace this time.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), directed by Peter Webber, tells the story of a masterpiece of Dutch art; Het Meisje met de Parel (Girl with a Pearl Earring) by Johannes Vermeer. Based on a novel of the same name, written by Tracy Chevalier, the film depicts a fictional account leading up to the creation of the painting, in particular the special bond that forms between Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a housemaid (who becomes Vermeer’s muse and model), and Jan Vermeer (Colin Firth).

Griet enters the family home run by Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), as a maid in order to support her family; her intelligence is apparent, and she has an eye for color and composition which Vermeer notices. Much of the film takes place in the atelier, the sanctuary of a bustling, chaotic household (Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes (Essie Davis) had 14 children) Despite the gaping divide in their class rank, Vermeer lets Griet in on the process of painting, eventually asking her to assist him in preparing the paints—one of the most essential phases of painting. As a slow painter Vermeer produces only one painting a year, and the household is dependent on an affluent patron, Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who has set his eyes on Griet. This is how the portrait of the girl comes into being; an official painting, and a secret portrait of Griet in parallel.

Griet: Madam, shall I wash the windows? 
Catharina: You don’t need to ask me about such matters. 
Griet: It’s just… it may change the light. 

The setting of the film is Delft, 1665, intricately reproduced  with the aid of Vermeer’s and other paintings of the golden era of Dutch art as references; with such detailed source material, the film manages to capture the atmosphere of the paintings perfectly. In a way, the film is also treated as a painting: it builds up slowly, layer by layer, with a sense for details and beauty. During a pivotal scene, a dinner celebrating new life and the disclosure of a Vermeer’s finished painting, we get a look at the harsh reality of household servants; the effort put into the celebration, and briefly glimpse the conversation through a glass window along with Griet, a reminder of separation within the household. 

Over time the Girl with a Pearl Earring has gained the same kind of enigma that surrounds the Mona Lisa, and has been dubbed the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’; in both paintings the model is unknown, and their expressions are indecipherable. Chevalier has described how the way she looked at the painting changed as she imagined the portrait rather as a portrait of a relationship, which inspired the premise of the novel. Girl with a Pearl Earring explores precisely the relationship between the artist and subject; how their interaction is affected once Griet becomes Vermeer’s model.


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