Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Girl with a Pearl Earring

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I admire a good painting, but I go to the movie theater to see motion pictures. So, I was skeptical about a film whose focus was an unmoving image. But, this story is about the people that created the famous painting. If you are a fan of sexual tension, this film throbs with it as it suggests the possible back story behind the portrait with the above title by Johannes Vermeer. The director, Peter Webber, absolutely makes you feel as if you are inhabiting the damp (should I say fertile?) canal streets of 17th century Delft. I had the urge to buy wooden shoes after seeing this movie. Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as Griet, an alabaster beauty cowled in a white head cover, her mouth always parted as if unconsciously and sensually waiting for her sexual hunger to be fed. She is the maid who has come to work in the Vermeer household containing Vermeer's wife, mother-in-law, his children and other servants.

Colin Firth does not speak many words as Vermeer. But, he tells us what he is feeling with his brooding looks that show how he can barely contain his seething passion for Griet, who he quickly realizes understands the power of color and light. They are kindred souls in this sense, but their non-sexual sexual affair can only be realized in displaced ways. He teaches her how to make paint in a very sensual, tactile scene filled with the colorful mashing of ingredients and mixing of fluids. He puts his robe over the two of them, as if under bed covers, as they look into a camera obscura. When she eventually sits as the subject of the painting, he must pierce her ear so that she can wear the pearl earring. This scene suggests sexual penetration as he plunges the needle through her earlobe, spilling the virginal blood. He knows that their connection is illicit, as is seen when he tells her to buy materials for his paint, but says that his wife need not know about her errand for him.

The film is filled with sexual displacement and frustration. Vermeer cannot have Griet, or women like her of a lower order, so he keeps getting his wife pregnant. But, continues to feel unfulfilled. His wife has Vermeer as her husband, but she is unable to understand his art, and thus, is unable to satisfy him. So, she is jealous of Griet. The mother, wanting the family to financially prosper, basically acts as a madam, urging Griet to get her son-in-law's creative juices flowing. She procures her daughter's testicular-shaped pearls for the artistic climax. Tom Wilkinson plays the lascivious patron, who lusts after the objects of Vermeer's portraits, and almost rapes Grief, but can in the end only possess the two dimensional female depictions. Right after the ear piercing scene, Griet runs off to a bawdy bar, seeks the butcher boy who wants her, and indulges her lust for Vermeer by having sex with the boy. Vermeer's daughter, filled with Freudian jealousy toward Griet, tries to frame the maid for stealing. She also smears with mud the white (sexually unsullied?) hanging sheets that Griet has cleaned, painting her own canvas almost in rebellion against her father's art.

At one point, Vermeer wants to know why she has moved the chair next to the female subject that he is painting. Griet says, "She looked trapped." Giet is trying to be free herself, but it is difficult given the time in which she is living, and her station in life. Vermeer has the power as employer, and orders her to make time to make the paint and sit for him. He uses her despite the fact that he puts her in jeopardy by inciting his wife's jealousy. As the mother-in-law says to Griet, "You are a fly in his web. We all are." 

Griet may not be able to be Vermeer's lover, but she has enough influence to get him to clear her name of theft and she can refuse to uncover her head despite Vermeer's demands that she do so. When she sees the painting, she says to him, "You looked inside me." So, there is a spiritual penetration, if not a physical one. In the end, he sends her the pearl earrings, a tribute to how important she was to his art.

Next week’s movie is Touch of Evil.

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