Girl With a Pearl Earring

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Webber
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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What's in a gaze? It's impossible to view Johannes Vermeer's most beloved work, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (aka "Girl in a Blue Turban," 1665), and not wonder what's in that girl's look. Her eyes, cast over her shoulder squarely on the person painting her; her lips, slightly apart, on the verge of something, but revealing nothing with certainly. Look at it one way and you can almost see a smile forming, a tentative tenderness creeping in. But look again and you'll find an unsettled skittishness, a hesitation at giving herself up to the canvas.

Little is known of Vermeer's history, other than he was a struggling artist in mid-17th-century Holland. As such, his work retains its mystery more than 300 years later. That hasn't prevented speculation as to its origins, though. A 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier imagined the Vermeer household and a maid who came to sit for the portrait, and former documentary filmmaker Peter Webber has now brought the scenario to life in "Girl With a Pearl Earring." While some may wish to let the painting remain an enigma, Webber does a good job at extrapolating from history to give us one possible story behind that look.

The heart of the film is what transpires between artist and model, an intimacy that has fascinated filmmakers, who share a sometimes similar relationship with their cast (albeit a crowded film set lacks the tension involved in a one-on-one relationship behind closed doors). From the beginning, cinema imagined this relationship as one of lovers -- from Paul Granville and his cabaret floozy model in 1918's "Revelation" to Emmanuelle Beart sitting nude for Michel Piccoli in 1991's "La Belle noiseuse." But "Girl With a Pearl Earring" takes a different tack, showing us art as sublimated lust, where it's the frisson of acknowledging an attraction while knowing at the same time that it can never, will never be.