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Beauty Break: Girl With a Pearl Earring

abstew here with a look back at 2003 with Scarlett Johansson as the Girl With A Pearl Earring and the actual Vermeer painting that inspired the film.












Looking at them side by side, I don't think Scarlett looks all that much like the actual painting. Her lips are way too big and her face is much longer and thinner. (Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst who originally had both been cast and dropped out of the project, physically would have resembled the girl in the painting a little more.) But there's no denying that even with bleached eyebrows and same crazy material on her head, she's still a looker. Scarlett plays Griet, a maid hired to work at the house of artist Johannes Vermeer (a sexy Colin Firth). Working alongside the artist, she begins to assist him in his studio. She gradually learns to appreciate the process of painting and inspires him to create his most famous work. In an almost wordless performance, Johansson lets us inside the inner workings and thoughts of a girl who's life was destined for cooking and cleaning but soon sees that art has the power to elevate. When looking at the painting for the first time she replies, "You looked inside me..."

Despite early praise for work in such films as The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World, I think it's pretty safe to say that with the double feature of Lost In Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring, 2003 was the break-out year of Scarlett Johansson. She earned double nominations for both performances from not only BAFTA, but the Golden Globes as well. (And, boy, did the Globes fall hard. They really liked her and nominated her 2 more times racking up 4 noms in 3 consecutive years. Remember her great work in A Love Song for Bobby Long? Yeah, me either.) Strangely, the Academy was less enthused with ScarJo deciding not to nominate her for either performance that year. And the poor girl has to live with the fact that Jonah Hill now has more Oscar nominations than she does at this point. But 10 years later, 2013 is proving to be another big year for the star. Her sassy turn as a gum-smacking Jersey Girl in Don Jon is already earning her nominations and there's a huge amount of history-making Oscar buzz around her voice-over work in Spike Jonze's Her. 

But I still think Girl With A Pearl Earring is one of her finest performances and the film is certainly the most gorgeous that she's been apart of. Based on the hugely successful book by Tracy Chevalier the whole film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. In fact, the film's three Oscar nominations (Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume) were all for its aesthetic beauty. Bathed in light and saturated in color, each shot is composed as if a series of living, breathing Vermeer paintings brought to life. 

And now, the actual painting (which has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa due to the mysterious nature of its subject) is on display until January 19 at The Frick Collection in New York! Having already seen it years ago in The Hague, I was eager to see her again this past Sunday. A word of advice - buy tickets online in advance! The line to get in wrapped around the block in the cold, drizzling rain and the woman at the front desk said people are waiting hours to catch a glimpse of the painting! It all seems a little crazy as I just walked right in with my pre-purchased ticket and was finished with the whole museum in about an hour. Girl With A Pearl Earring gets a room all to herself, so you can look into her mysterious gaze for as long as you want. It's amazing to think what a reputation the painting has built over the years as it was purchased at an auction for only two guilders and 30 cents in 1881! Very little is known about Vermeer's life other than dates and the work (and even some of that is in question). And nothing is known about the real-life girl in the painting. It's speculated that she could be Vermeer's eldest daughter, but no one knows for sure. I think most people accept the story of the movie as fact at this point.

While you're there make sure to check out the Frick's other three Vermeers (including Girl Interrupted At Her Music - which inspired the title of the book and film Girl Interrupted). And if you're especially feeling some Vermeer and want to see some more, go across the street to The Met where they have 5 of the Master's paintings (including the other painting Griet inspires in the film, Young Woman With A Water Pitcher). There are only 34 known works of Vermeer and right now you can see about a third of them here in New York. 

And Vermeer happens to be the subject (well, kinda) of a documentary from magicians Penn and Teller that is vying for a nomination for this year's Best Documentary Award at the Oscars, Tim's Vermeer. The film follows Tim Jenison, an inventor that pioneered video software for computers, as he recreates actual Vermeer paintings by building himself a camera obscura. The device (which makes an appearance in Girl With A Pearl Earring as Vermeer has Griet look at the composition through its lens) is a box made up of mirrors that allowed the details of the image it was projecting to be highly detailed. The film played at this year's New York Film Festival and at the moment is enjoying a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

Even after more than 325 years after his death, Vermeer is still inspiring great works of art. 

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Reader Comments (9)

An exquisite film, and she's so powerful in it. I'm glad she's finally back in roles that are worthy of - and are receiving the full range of - her talents. Essie Davis is fantastic too, though their two approaches are almost completely different.

I actually read the book while on holiday with my family in Holland about a year after the film, and we took a day trip to Delft - I'm not sure how much they filmed there, but the feel of the place was a nice experience. If I remember rightly, we saw the painting in Amsterdam on the same holiday. Needless to say, the whole package of film, book and holiday caught me keenly in my teenage years! So I've always felt quite attached to its peculiar eroticism and how attuned the filmmaking was to the sense of things like chopping vegetables.

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

In true actressing loving form I was so in love with her performance (and therefore the film) that I decided to read the book for a school project and got an A+ on my book report. Thanks Scarlett!

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteros

She's rather amazing in the role (and so ethereal and gorgeous as a Flemish redhead) and the film is truly a visual wonder in all the design aspects.

I agree that Essie Davis is also fantastic in the film... but in a totally different way lol.

Bravo Vermeer appreciation post! One of my personal inner circle of favorite artists.

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

os -- cute story!

mark -- yes, underrated movie in terms of filmmaking

abstew -- thanks for posting.

everyone -- i wonder what other painting could inspire motion pictures in this way

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

i wonder what other painting could inspire motion pictures in this way

To bring it back to the post, no one has ever done a real Mona Lisa inspired story and that would be tres interesting to try to work into the painting. Kinda surprised no one's ever fully gone there, considering.

Also, Birth of Venus or at least Botticelli's pagan period, would be fabulous.

Klimt and his lovers that inspired his iconic and severe female looks. Actually there was a horrid one with Malkovich a while back but a GOOD one.

A film adaptation of Red, the Tony winning play from a few years back about Rothko.

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

This post also reminds me, in addition to the fact ScarJo tried to get nominated for both this and Lost in Translation and criminally went empty-handed that year, that I really want to see the documentary Tim's Vermeer.

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

nathaniel - of course! any excuse to talk actresses and art!

david - when i went to the netherlands, took a day trip to delft and another day trip to the hague to see this painting at the mauritshuis. i fell in love with delft and felt like it was a treasure hunt finding all things vermeer

mark - love vermeer as well and still can't believe one of his paintings is pretty much gone for good. the concert was stolen from the isabella stewart gardner museum in boston in 1990 and there've been no leads in 23 years!

also, would love to see movies about mona lisa and birth of venus as well. loved red on stage and love when they create the painting on stage in real time. but don't know how it would translate as a film. it's very theatrical. i would also love to see a movie about portrait of madame x and, of course, a film version of sondheim's sunday in the park with george!

November 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Nathaniel: Caravaggio of course! And Days of Heaven / Andrew Wyeth! There are parts of Far from Heaven and (oddly enough) Spirited Away that make me think of Edward Hopper too, but as to the stories behind the art that I'd like to see on screen, I wouldn't really know. Not enough of an art historian, I'm afraid. Maybe something about Michelangelo and Raphael's years working in competition with each other at the Vatican? Although artistic rivalry has sort of been done before.

I also loved the scene in Midnight in Paris when Owen Wilson is looking at the Monet murals of the waterlilies that encircle the rooms at the Musee de l"Orangerie but mainly because I love those rooms and the effect of that gallery's design so much.

Oh! I just remembered that Mike Leigh is doing a Turner project, which I can't wait for. LOVE Turner's landscapes and I'll be interested in seeing if they forgo any aesthetic similarity to the painter's works in favour of something more naturalistic.

Abstew: I really enjoyed your post on this film. Unfortunately, I had to study the book in high school so the film is marred by the memory of over-analysis and frantic memorising of quotes from the book for exams. I do remember loving the light in the film though. Maybe I should rewatch it sometime. Did you ever see those Peter Greenaway films revolving around Rembrandt? I kept missing them every time they showed up at our local film festivals but Greenaway has such a formidable history of imbuing his films with really bold aesthetics that it would be interesting to see his take on Rembrandt.

November 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

abstew, thanks for writing about this gorgeous film. So happy to know I haven't been alone in loving it all these years!

November 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

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