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Imagining an elusive Dutch painter's world

Little is known about Vermeer, a challenge for first-time filmmaker Peter Webber and star Colin Firth in 'Girl With a Pearl Earring.'

December 14, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Luxembourg, Luxembourg — 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."

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