Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 29, 2004 12:04 pm 
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Recessiveness works

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an English production made in Holland of the historical novel fantasizing details of Vermeer’s life when he painted one of his most vivid masterpieces. Scarlett Johansson brilliantly underplays the central role of the servant girl, Griet, who temporarily becomes the artist’s muse. She looks right, as the posters and ads which copy Vermeer’s light on her face, clearly show. So does everybody, including a suffering, sensitive, bewigged Colin Firth as Vermeer. This is a movie about looking. You go to it to see another world. You come away from it with Vermeer’s images in your mind, and you want to go and see a real Vermeer. I tried to hunt them down at the National Gallery in Washington, but they were all removed to fix a leak in the room, and I didn’t find any till I got back to New York and tracked down three at the Frick. You can talk about a Vermeer for days, but doesn’t it remain completely enigmatic in its crisp perfection?

The wife in the movie is materialistic. Vermeer himself is the slave of his chief patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkenson), who molests Johansson’s character, or tries to, and when that happens as the painting is finished she fortunately has just been offered marriage by Pieter, her butcher boy suitor, and she goes off to live with him, sneaking away in the night. When she has arrived there she gets a package. Vermeer has sent the pearl earrings she posed in. The picture of Vermeer’s life is grim. He comes and goes, almost furtively: this conforms with our sense of him historically as a mysterious figure. The main focus is on the servant girl.

I don’t think the drama in Girl with a Pearl Earring will stick in anybody’s mind, but the images will. Every shot looks either like a Dutch painting by somebody, or like an actual Vermeer. The light is splendid. A fine restraint marks exterior shots.

You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose most emotional moment comes when Vermeer’s wife almost slashes the portrait.

It seems that Tracy Chevalier, the author of the book, which I haven’t read, played around with the known facts, gingerly sketching in possibilities without so much delving deeply into the psychology of the principals as setting up a clear sense of the everyday realities of their lives, the houses, the social rules, the economics of Vermeer’s career. It’s the bare minimum to make the scene come to life. The author didn’t even add her own title, using instead, unchanged, the existing title of a painting. This is what the movie does. In an effort (for the most part successful) to achieve nothing but authenticity, it holds back, presenting only what is known, with only little hints of invention. It’s recessive about its storytelling. It’s almost a series of tableaux more than a movie. But because the tableaux are so well done, and the movie never pretends to be more, it works. By not being told too much, we project and imagine more.

Johansson demonstrated her special gift for recessiveness earlier in 2003 in Lost in Translation. Keats called it “negative capability”: it’s the knack for becoming somebody else by silencing your own individuality and opening up to all the possibilities of another’s. This is the quintessential cinematic acting method, as outlined in Michael Caine’s lessons in the technique. Another word for it is “underplaying.” It’s the primary difference between screen and stage acting: the camera is the magnifier, so there’s not the theatrical need to “project” movement, emotion, or voice. In this sense Johansson, like Caine, is the perfect film actor. As you watch her you feel she’s the inheritor of a long and distinguished cinematic tradition. This kind of restraint is remarkable for one so young and you can imagine how she happened to work with the equally precocious Sofia Coppola. But Johansson’s performance seems even more remarkable in Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was Bill Murray who was the miracle of recessiveness in Lost in Translation. Here, Johansson enters a world far more different from her own, and her success is a triumph.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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