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Photograph by Jaap Buitendijk

Pretty as a Picture: Scarlett Johansson models (and more) for Dutch artist Vermeer in 'Girl With a Pearl Earring.'

Veils of Decorum

'Girl With a Pearl Earring' brings Vermeer's famous painting to life

By Richard von Busack

SINCE IT'S BOTH swank and snoozy, Girl With a Pearl Earring can't be saved even by its genuine beauty. Scarlett Johansson of Lost in Translation stars as Griet, the model for the famed Johannes Vermeer painting from which this film has taken its title. In Holland, in the city of Delft, in the mid-1600s, Griet becomes a servant in the crowded, spying household of the master artist. Vermeer (Colin Firth) is bedeviled, caught between his pregnant and jealous wife on the one hand and the whims of his art patron, a coarse burgher named Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), on the other.

Griet is not blind to art. Her father was an artisan who made Delft's famous tiles before he was disabled in an accident. Vermeer understands the young girl's covert interest in him. He teaches her how to mix pigments and returns her unspoken fascination by ordering her (imperiously) to model for him.

Johansson carries herself well as a simple girl, but was ever a girl that simple? Girl With a Pearl Earring bears a strange eroticism: the key moment of indiscretion has Griet unwinding her head cloth and revealing her hair to a man. This is followed by the suggestive scene of her flinching as she has her ear pierced for the first time. (The movie would fit right in with the short-lived modesty craze of a few years ago.) When was the last time we had a European film that placed all the erogenous zones above the neck? As such, Girl With a Pearl Earring provides one explanation for the gaze in the well-known painting: the veils of decorum have parted, and an instant of longing is shining through.

The film is well appointed but juiceless; even the carnage of a butcher shop seems quaintly arranged, as in the paintings of the time. Because the Dutch Republic was an era when money talked almost as loudly as it does today, it would have been fun if Wilkinson had seasoned the role of the boorish patron with a little more insinuation. If his dark money and wicked ways seemed spicy against the rigorous morals of the day, the film could have shown a little more tension in the most basic kind of romance. In the part of the genius, Firth seems wise enough, but unfortunately his long floppy hair makes him resemble Steve Zahn at his most miffed. The actor is a lighter romantic lead than some directors suspect.

With its stilted dialogue, written in the familiar international style of Merchant/Ivory ("You're not the first to forget your manners in front of one of his paintings"), the cast of Englishmen and Americans in the lead roles deracinates the picture worse than the English and Australian stars in Cold Mountain. Insisting that we look at a painting as staged by actors in a tableau vivant is the opposite of the pleasure we experience in a museum gallery--of wandering, until one particular picture seizes us. This film, as well as Jon Jost's All the Vermeers in New York, suggests that the early death and subsequent obscurity of Vermeer may be more enticing than what's in the frame. Is this fascination with Vermeer like the old-time worship of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, rendered dead in all but the corniest movies, such as Mona Lisa Smile?

Girl With a Pearl Earring (PG-13; 99 min.), directed by Peter Webber, written by Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, photographed by Eduardo Serra and starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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