Shrouded in darkness, she turns her head toward us, the look on her face suggesting...well, what exactly? Happiness? Sadness? Love? Apprehension? Her lips are parted, as if she's about to explain everything. Alas, this is a painting, and we've been waiting for that explanation for well over 300 years. Johannes Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring has been called "the Dutch Mona Lisa," so enigmatically does it speak to us across the centuries. Who is this young beauty, with her blue turban and her red smock -- less clothes than costume, the silky material set off by that lustrous globule dangling from her left earlobe. Was she a friend of Vermeer's? A neighbor? Daughter of a patron? And was Vermeer, as is suggested by the attention he lavished on her portrait, madly in love with her? Aren't all artists in love with their models?
Tracy Chevalier took a stab at answering those questions in a 1999 novel that's now been turned into a movie directed by Peter Webber and (just as important) photographed by Eduardo Serra. Attempting to explain that happy/sad, young/old, innocent/jaded expression on the girl's face, Chevalier suggested unconsummated love. Griet (Scarlett Johansson, as placid as a still life) is a servant girl who takes a job in the Vermeer household and, without saying a word, becomes the artist's muse. Assigned to clean his studio, she reveals an artistic bent, moving a chair that was crowding a composition. For Vermeer (Colin Firth, moodily handsome), this is pure catnip. Before long, he's got her mixing his paints, much to the chagrin of his wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), who moves about the house in a kind of haughty panic.
Very little is known about Vermeer's life, leaving Chevalier with a large blank canvas to paint on. We do know that he had 11 children, lived in his mother-in-law's house and was often in debt, but what that reveals about his personality is anybody's guess. Nor do we know what he looked like; there are no self-portraits among his few dozen surviving works. Chances are he didn't closely resemble Colin Firth, who, like the rest of the production, gives off a British, "Masterpiece Theatre" air. With the limited materials at her disposal, Chevalier cobbled together what I'd call your standard brooding artist, Heathcliff with a paintbrush, which might disappoint us more if Firth didn't handle the part so sensitively and if we weren't primarily interested in Griet. Not for nothing is the movie called Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Unlike Firth, Johansson could easily pass for Dutch. In fact, she bears a striking resemblance to the anonymous lass immortalized by Vermeer -- the same full lips, the same delicate skin, the same eyes, at once wary and beseeching. Girl With a Pearl Earring has a similar premise to Lost in Translation, where Johansson lit a fire under Bill Murray's burnt-out movie star. There, she was distant but reachable, adrift between girlhood and womanhood. Here, she's ripe but virginal, trapped between girlhood and womanhood, with few means of escape. The script gives her very little to say, and it's a tribute to Johansson's performance that we don't even realize this until later, so much has she conveyed through bearing and gesture. Still, we can admire the performance while asking ourselves whether we've been given enough to sink our teeth into.
Griet narrates Chevalier's novel, making us privy to her thoughts. In the movie, she's more of a cipher, a screen upon which we project our thoughts. She's not a complete blank, however. When one of Vermeer's daughters sabotages the newly washed laundry out of spite, Griet impulsively slaps her, which, given the dearth of characterization, speaks volumes: She's no mere servant girl. But there's still a tendency for the movie to turn Griet into an esthetic object, just as Vermeer did three centuries ago, stripping the girl of her name in exchange for immortality. Actually, the whole movie has been turned into an esthetic object, a succession of shots that might convince Vermeer, were he alive today, to trade in his palette for a camera. Lighting effects he spent months trying to achieve are now merely an f-stop away.
I'm exaggerating, but Serra's cinematography is so reliably stunning that you start to take it for granted. Vermeer's was an art of domestic comfort -- private moments (playing a virginal, reading a letter, making lace) that he redeemed through the suppleness of his brush. Dutch genre painting marked a revolution in art history -- smaller canvasses, smaller ideas. No longer did you have to wrestle a religious allegory to the ground to sell a painting. Yet, there's a devotional aspect to these scenes of everyday life, especially the ones by Vermeer. Light sifts through the air, as in a cathedral, and the rooms seem drenched in silence. Looking at the paintings, you feel like an eavesdropper, an interloper. But eavesdropping on what? There's not a lot going on. Life has been transformed into still life.
And in the movie, pictures have been transformed into moving pictures -- not much drama, but lots of dramatic lighting. For some people, dramatic lighting may not be enough; everything's so tamped down. But there are outbursts, as when Catharina finally gets a look at the painting that will be remembered long after she's been forgotten. The love story between Vermeer and Griet is at once chaste and carnal; they're turned on by each other, but they're even more turned on by art. And if art happens to be one of your turn-ons, then let your hair down, because the movie is wet with displaced desire. "Open your mouth," Vermeer says as Griet strikes her famous pose. "Now lick your lips." Three hundred years later, those lips are cracked with age, like a porcelain vase. But if you ignore the cracks, they're as moist as ever.