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It’s not happenstance that the tumultuous Vincent Van Gogh is the man most often portrayed by artist biopics. The genre emphasizes what one such movienot about Van Gogh, as it happenscalled “the agony and the ecstasy”: Tormented geniuses battle misunderstanding and madness as they consider whether to turn their palette knives on their canvases or themselves.
This scenario, so far as we know, can’t be applied to Johannes Vermeer. In fact, we know little about 17th-century Delft’s master, but the evidence of his paintings suggests someone who was very much in control. He’s admired for his mastery of color and light, as well as for domestic portraits that suggest a subject’s rich but enigmatic interior life. Color and light are now the province of cinematography, but interior lives still belong to novels, so it’s no surprise Girl With a Pearl Earring began as a book. Tracy Chevalier’s best seller gives us much of Vermeer’s technique and a bit of his personality, but it concentrates on Griet, the fictional model for the titular painting. (It was posterity, not Vermeer, that named the canvas, perhaps inaccurately; some art historians suspect the earring was actually pewter.)
“His paintings don’t tell stories,” the novel’s Griet says of Vermeer to her blind father, himself a former tile painter. But Chevalier certainly does: Griet is a 16-year-old Protestant who becomes a maid in the disturbingly Catholic Vermeer household. She’s disdained by the painter’s wife, Catharina; sexually harassed by his principal patron, van Ruijven; and bedeviled by the most malicious of the family’s young daughters, Cornelia. The seemingly diffident Vermeer, however, recognizes Griet’s affinity for color and composition, making her first his assistant and then his model. As the maid moves closer to her master, however, Catharina and Cornelia become more hostile. Griet’s only ally is Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, who supports anything that makes her son-in-law more productive; her only solace is a handsome but rough-edged suitor, butcher’s son Pieter.
Director Peter Webber and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed follow Chevalier’s plot faithfully. But the novel is narrated in Griet’s voice, which the filmmakers do not attempt to retain. Thus a story in which the maid’s sensibility was foremost becomes one in which her thoughts and feelings are merely suggested. Essentially, Webber and Hetreed have transformed Griet from the subject into an object. The director, a TV veteran making his feature debut, has even drained the significance of such eminently cinematic moments as the establishing scene in which Vermeer (Colin Firth) watches Griet (Scarlett Johansson) cut vegetables for soup, carefully separating them by color. Rather than the novel’s untutored savant, who subtly improves Vermeer’s paintings, this Griet is a blank canvas: a lush-lipped, dewy-eyed muse for a middle-aged man. It’s Johansson’s Lost in Translation role all over again, complete with a supporting cast of exoticsin this case, wealthy 17th-century Dutch Catholics instead of everyday contemporary Japanese.
Yet Johansson has a more central place in Girl With a Pearl Earring than in Lost in Translation. In fact, her silent presence and constricted performance embody the good half of the filmthe part that is luminous and hushed. Webber’s movie may be too subtle for viewers accustomed to Hollywood melodramas, yet it has its overdone elements, notably the performances of Tom Wilkinson (van Ruijven) and Essie Davis (Catharina) and Alexandre Desplat’s score, whose flourishes are as brazen as those of any American weepie. While the director yields to these conventions, he has one eye on something very different and much more compelling: films that attempt to animate the forms and hues of classic paintings.
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In a sense, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a Peter Greenaway film for (or about) Puritans. Greenaway trained in art history and has worked often in Holland, but the director has an enduring interest in the nude, which was not Vermeer’s domain. Although Griet is shocked by the liberties the painter takes with her, they seem minor by the standards of contemporaryor even Italian Renaissanceart. As unwilling to reveal her hair as any ultra-orthodox Muslim or Jewish woman, Griet wraps her tresses in cloth after Vermeer asks that she remove her maid’s cap. She rejects piercing her ears until the painter insists that an earring is essential to the painting. Is her open-mouthed pose erotic? Chevalier says yes; Webber supposes maybe.
In its concern with the mysterious properties of natural light, Girl With a Pearl Earring is also akin to The Quince Tree Sun, Victor Erice’s account of the monthslong process of painting a single still life. That film was set outdoors in Iberian sunlight; this one, by contrast, is Northern and interior, illuminated by the reddish glow of lamps and milky glimmers through thick windowpanes. Indeed, shooting mostly in Luxembourg, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben van Os impressively conjure 1660s Delft. Yet details of clothing, architecture, and furnishings matter less to the film than such Vermeerian intangibles as light and shadow. In deft tribute to Vermeer, the director puts less effort into domestic drama than into capturing the ideal glimmer, the exemplary sidelong glance. Like Griet, Webber faces many distractions but ultimately proves himself a worthy pupil.
In August of last year, as Rialto Pictures prepared Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers for reissue, the film got an unusual publicity boost: A screening was scheduled at the Pentagon for anti-terrorism experts and other interested military wonks. What the French faced in Algeria in the ’50s, after all, bears some resemblance to what “the coalition” is now experiencing in Iraq: bombings, shootings, ambushes, and a hostile population into which attackers can easily vanish.
Made in 1965 and first released in the United States in 1967, The Battle of Algiers has long been watched for lessons on wars other than the one it depicts. The military struggle against Algerian nationalists was a vital topic for French intellectuals, inspiring films by Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard; in this country, Pontecorvo’s fictionalized but basically historical account was studied for tips on anti-“colonial” insurrections in Vietnam, inner-city ghettos, and elsewhere. For his part, the director drew on his experience as an anti-German partisan during World War II, as well as the neorealist style of Roberto Rossellini’s films about that war, Open City and Paisan.
Still, The Battle of Algiers was not intended as an allegory. It’s about France’s temporarily successful 1957 crackdown on the Algerian movement known as the Front de Libération Nationale. The scenario was devised by Saadi Yacef, an Algerian revolutionary held in a Paris prison. (Yacef had been sentenced to death, but he was released after the French relinquished Algeria in 1962.) Although Yacef enlisted an Italian director to make the film and the final script was co-written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, the movie was funded by the newly independent Algeria and made with the cooperation of thousands of nonprofessional Algerian performers. The filmmakers cast Yacef as El-hadi Jaffar, an FLN leader patterned on himself, and steely-gazed shepherd Brahim Haggiaga ready-made combo of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Che Guevaraas Ali la Pointe, the petty criminal who becomes one of Jaffar’s closest associates.
Pontecorvo doesn’t hide his sympathy for the FLN, whose cause the film bolsters with a score written by the director and Ennio Morricone. But The Battle of Algiers is primarily a procedural, with crisp accounts of shooting French soldiers and bombing cafes and dance halls. (These sequences recall the almost-tutorial illustrations of pilfering in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.) Most of the film focuses on the French anti-insurgency campaign, led by the imperious but not inhuman Col. Mathieu. Based on real-life Gen. Jacques Massu and played by one of the film’s few professional actors, Jean Martin, Mathieu is no stock neofascist. He delivers a speech, for example, in which he claims that many of the Frenchmen fighting to hold Algeria served in the French resistance or survived Nazi death camps. He does not, however, forswear torture as an information-gathering technique. Indeed, the film opens in a French torture chamber, and its depictions of brutal interrogationsthough mild by today’s standardswere sufficiently shocking (and politically controversial) to be deleted from the original American and British releases.
Shot by cinematographer Marcello Gatti in a black-and-white pseudodocumentary style, the movie once seemed so authentic that it was initially released with a disclaimer noting that it contained no newsreel footage. After 40 years of docudramas modeled at least in part on Pontecorvo’s film, that footnote is no longer required. Yet The Battle of Algiers, now refurbished with improved subtitles and new prints, remains a dynamic, engrossing account of revolutionary violence and authoritarian countermeasures. At the Pentagon screening, most people were probably concentrating on the combatants’ strategies, and the film is certainly interesting on that level. It’s just as compelling, however, as a consideration of guerrilla warfare’s moral collateral damage. CP