Imagining an elusive Dutch painter's world

Special to The Times

The only thing riskier for box office potential than labeling a movie an art film might be calling it a film about art -- even if it happens to be about the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

Which may explain why director Peter Webber speaks of art as just one of many themes in his adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling 1999 novel, "Girl With a Pearl Earring." Just as the book used the mystery behind Vermeer's popular painting to invent a relationship between the artist and a servant girl who could have been his muse, Webber said that his project -- starring Colin Firth as Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson as Griet (The Girl) and Tom Wilkinson as Vermeer's mercenary patron, Van Ruijven -- is "more than just a quaint little film about art." It is, he says, about money, sex, repression, obsession, power and the human heart.

The boyish, mile-a-minute Webber, 42, on the Luxembourg set, added that he cut out the artspeak but peppered the movie -- his first feature film -- with sly Vermeer references for those who will get them. "I want to make a film not only for the cognoscenti. It's a film about relationships between people, and the painting is a vehicle for exploring those relationships.

"What happens when an old man becomes obsessed with a young girl? What happens to a couple with six children who've been together for 15 years when someone's work takes over their life? What happens when a woman feels that her husband's interest in her is waning? What do you do when money interferes with art?"

Those are some of the questions that arise when a lovely young servant girl joins the Vermeer residence. Little is known about the elusive artist, who did not leave as much as a self-portrait behind, but the filmmakers decided on a shoulder-length wig for Firth, who was posing in front of the easel in a low-lighted, lead-windowed studio as Webber looked through the monitor from a side room.

Webber said that this slightly dreamy atmosphere was a contrast to the highly colored peasant world of bustling Delft, where the artist lived and much of the action would take place. He wanted to avoid making a portrait of Holland using travel poster shortcuts, he said. "We've avoided windmills, tulips, Edam -- no, sorry -- Gouda cheese."

In dreaming up the personage of Vermeer, Webber said that he and fellow Brit Firth -- who, he points out, are close in age, background and cultural references -- discussed everything from "the mundane to the incredibly pretentious." They went to a paint-grinding windmill in Amsterdam, to the museum in The Hague where the original painting is kept. They chased Vermeer's ghost to Delft. "We talked about everything from his walk to how we would wear his hat, stand, hold paintbrushes," Webber said, "and then to how enigmatic did we want him, how mysterious? You want to have a lot of those discussions before you start.... It's very expensive, talking on the set."

If nobody knows what Vermeer looked like, Webber met every hot young actress in Hollywood to find the face of the ubiquitous painting (Kate Hudson was attached in an earlier financing of the project with Ralph Fiennes as Vermeer). But by now everyone on set was saying "Scarlett is The Girl!"

"When I first saw the painting, my mom said, 'Oh, that's funny, the painting looks a little like you,' " Johansson said on a break between scenes, kneading her delicate hands in her costume apron. "And I said, 'No, it doesn't!' " But in a headscarf and with dyed blond eyebrows to match the painting's coloring, she admitted to a spooky resemblance. "When I'm in costume and I cock my head in just the right position and we're doing a very still pose, it can be very eerie -- a thing the painting kind of exudes, it comes out in very still moments with the camera."

The ever-more-popular Johansson, who turned 18 during the shoot, said that she was waiting to read the novel until after she finished shooting. But she seems to have reacted to the script, adapted by Olivia Hetreed, the way that many readers reacted to the novel.

"The script was beautifully written," she said. "I was very moved and it's so rare that that happens. The character is very touching. She's sort of destined to be in a certain social class, and you know that when you begin the story. The relationship with Vermeer is very emotionally filled, and it's almost sort of impossible to grasp it -- it's always sort of slipping away, and it's very painful and it's that pain you can so relate to of wanting someone or wanting something so badly and it slipping out of your hands always. And while you're reading you feel a kind of anguish and nervousness and it's exciting to get that kind of feeling when you're reading something. It's very appealing."

Art history buffs

While the filmmakers insist that "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is a romantic drama, not an arty art film, they all seemed keen on providing caveats about their art history backgrounds. Webber studied art history in college. At the end of the shooting day, Firth, who was still in turquoise corduroy costume, said: "My entire circle of friends went to art school -- I was the odd one out. You talk about paintings at an enormous risk of sounding idiotic." But, twirling a strand of "hair" he nevertheless ventured forth, saying that at one point, he simply started to fall in love with art.

Rothko was his first love, he said. "But I certainly never would have gone for Dutch paintings," he continued, "utterly generic pictures of women with brushes in their hands and writing letters with their maid in the background." That was, until he saw "Young Woman With a Water Jug" in person. "You just feel kind of at a loss in front of some of those pictures."

Firth said that in the absence of material about Vermeer, he first looked to the paintings for guidance. "I think I kind of got myself tied into knots," he said. "There did come a point when I did stop looking at the pictures and just sort of came down from the clouds a bit and just did things that were practical. I could do all the research in the world and could never do an average portrait. But I found I loved the very tangible stuff of just mixing paints and working with brushes and canvases. I love the materials. They're not things I work with every day. Actors always have to pretend this and pretend that. If I can love mixing an incredibly beautiful bit of paint and I'm playing someone who loved doing that, then that's just a gift right in your hands."

Firth admitted that he had become the resident Vermeerophile. "It's a bit pathetic, isn't it?" he said. "Extremely dull. I mean I would have to say, by way of apology for that, that I'm not really that interested in the dates and where the paintings all are and that -- that's kind of a little boy's nerdy game that I play with other people."

'Appropriate' curiosity

It seemed understandable that the actor would cling to whatever physical details he could, looking for clues to portraying the artist. "Rembrandt we know a lot about," he said. "Picasso was even within our lifetime -- we're surrounded by people who had contact with him. Vermeer, we don't even have a clue as to what he looked like. He painted 35 pictures we know about, if that, and all these tantalizing prosaic details like dates and itinerary of possessions and information about his wife."

But he was careful to point out that the film was not about to pop-psychoanalyze Vermeer, but to allow his mystery to stand. "It's not giving it a slant, like 'Amadeus,' " Firth said, "where we're making a decision about what kind of guy he is."

Of course the theme of wanting to unmask the personality behind the work is a relevant one for a movie actor, and Firth doesn't shy away from the comparison. "I think that the curiosity is perfectly appropriate," he said. "The need to satisfy it is worthless and inappropriate and misguided. In the case of writers, and I can't think of who this was -- Richard Ford, maybe? -- said, so something I have written has struck a chord with you; you felt you've entered into some deep point of discourse with me, and now suddenly you want to know me, you're looking to expand that intimacy or to unleash some kind of secret behind it. And the best point of intimacy you will ever have with me is what I wrote in that book; I'm not capable of being any more intimate with any human being than I was right there.

"You're talking about a guy washing his car, walking his dog. Or you meet a guy and you want him to be funny, and he says, 'No, I'm only funny when I've got hours to think of the next line.' I certainly know there are things I do when the camera is rolling that would be ludicrous in real life -- the way I look at people, the way I allow myself to be exposed. Actors do things that their social convention would never allow them to in their own environment."

After two romantic comedies this year, Firth said he chose the role partly as a change of pace. "It's actually fun to go for something that's not about the gags, to change gear and do something that's not ashamed of being earnest about what it is. I think it's rather risky because we're not hiding behind irony."

Vermeer books littered with sticky notes and photocopies of Vermeer paintings were in evidence all over the set, and Webber said that they had "spent a lot of time and money getting the details right." But more daunting than the looming ghost of a great artist might be the specter of the novel's devoted fans.

"With a novel, they've directed it in their heads," Webber said. "How many times have you gone to see a favorite book that's been turned into a film and you think: 'Nicolas Cage -- he's not Captain Corelli!' or whatever. How many good films are there of favorite books of yours? I mean normally a film is disappointing, compared to a novel you love."

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