Scarlett Fervor

New York Newsday, December 6, 2003
By John Anderson

Nothing gets lost in translation as Scarlett Johansson paints a screen portrait of the Vermeer 'Girl'

In a 1995 New Yorker piece written to mark the blockbuster Johannes Vermeer show then at the National Gallery in Washington, Lawrence Weschler wrote about the quality of near-photographic spontaneity that has helped make Vermeer's 1665 "Girl With a Pearl Earring" such a beloved and enigmatic piece of proto-realist portraiture.

Surely, she is beautiful - unlike so many of the painter's other female subjects, some of whom have a decidedly demented (or perhaps simply anticlassical) cast to their faces. But her allure is also her mystery: Has she just said something, or is she about to speak? Is she turning away from us, or has her glance just met our own?

Even the pearl itself, hanging there fat and lustrous and white, is captured, via Vermeer's genius, in midswing, coming and going, a pendulous puzzle.

Ambiguity can be a seductive quality. So can versatility. And disarming frankness. Are they native or developed? Products of naivete or calculation and art? Scarlett Johansson, who has been brightening a movie year that will most certainly not be remembered as the new millennium's 1939, has been doing all of the above. She is exhibiting a precocious ability to play older than she is in "Lost in Translation" (she only turned 19 Nov. 22). And she captures a young maidservant's disorienting immersion in the life of an artist in 17th century Delft in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" - first-time director Peter Webber's upcoming adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's speculative historical novel.

And after a day of meeting with the New York press for the upcoming film - and given that she's been professional most of her life - she was remarkably open about the quality of entertainment journalists of the ilk that frequent movie junkets at Manhattan hotels.

"There are some weird people, aren't there?" she says good-naturedly. "They never shower. Have weird clothing. Ask weird questions."

Can't argue with that. But then, what are people going to ask who've never heard of Vermeer (something one well-known local TV film critic apparently admitted). They could ask what it's like working with Bill Murray (as she does so sublimely in the critically acclaimed "Lost in Translation"). They might ask what it's like having begun an acting career at the unripe age of 8. They might even ask whether she ever wonders what life might have been like had she not been a performer so young, or made that major performing breakthrough in the 1996 indie hit "Manny & Lo," or been so moving and hurt as the damaged heroine of Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer."

"Sometimes," she says, "I feel very fortunate - no, I always feel very fortunate - for having had a great upbringing that has enabled me to be really aware of my surroundings and other people's sensitivity and to try to be a compassionate person and always try to think outside the box. So I don't wonder what it would be like to be more naive. But sometimes you wish you were a little more naive. Being less aware would make me less pessimistic - but that's only when you get jaded about something. But, all in all, I'd much rather be in the know."

She is, it seems - particularly about herself. She didn't read the Chevalier book, she said, because she knew it wouldn't have worked.

"I knew it was a really popular book; it's a first-person narrative. Some people on the film may have studied it, but I thought it was better for me not to. It was a personal decision. It wasn't like, if you're going to be part of this movie you have to read that book, 'cause that's private; they don't ask about your preparation and I really didn't have much time to prepare."

She pauses, then adds brightly, "I didn't have any time at all, actually. We wrapped 'Lost in Translation' and 10 days later we were shooting 'Girl.' I had to really jump into it, and the characters are so different that I just sort of used the emotional vulnerability of coming off 'Lost in Translation' and being so exhausted and just used it, I guess, you know, to recreate Griet."

Griet, the heroine of the book and movie, is the Protestant daughter of a Delft tilemaker injured in a kiln explosion (although the film, oddly, omits most of this set-up). She is forced to take a menial position in the Catholic household of Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) that, given the religious animosities of 1660s Holland, only adds to her disorientation. But her mind is sharp and her instinct for art uncanny, and Vermeer adopts her as a sort of confidant - something reluctantly supported by the artist's sales agent-mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), even as the increasing intimacy of the two drives Vermeer's slightly crazy wife Catharina (the spectacular Essie Davis) to further distraction.

The two characters Johansson has embodied this year - the seemingly sophisticated but troubled Charlotte of the contemporary "Lost in Translation" and the dislocated little Dutch girl of the period piece "Pearl Earring" - would seem to be as disparate as roles might be. And Johansson agrees. Although not necessarily about who's whom.

"I think she's quite knowing," Johansson says of Griet. "I don't think she's naive. I disagree about that - I think it's the other way around. I think Charlotte is on the verge of having a nervous breakdown and she needs the Bob Harris character [Murray] to get her out of the rut and kind of terrible place she's in.

"Griet is one of the strongest people I've played," she adds. "She's instinctive and it's why Vermeer is so intuitive about her and responds to her so. She's like someone he's never encountered before, not in his household. Griet can't say anything; Charlotte's totally contemporary. Griet probably has never seen a painting outside of some religious work and some very simple Calvinist things. She's never even seen an image of Christ. She's never been a servant - it's quite disgraceful that she has to work there at all."

Johansson, who lives in Greenwich Village, has a burning desire to direct and admits to doing no physical exercise whatsoever (yes, let's all eat our hearts out), had one of her odder experiences in making the film while seeing the painting itself, which hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Hague.

"There was all this pressure," she says with half a laugh. "I mean, I got there, it's a beautiful museum and it's very private and you can spend hours looking very comfortably, lots of different artists in small galleries. And it's nice.

"And then I got to the room where the Vermeer was, and it was like the unveiling of the painting. There was a camcorder on me and people were saying 'What did you think' and others were saying 'In '65, we discovered these paint droplets that were hidden' and there were all these people all around me. And while it was amazing to see it, because it's such a familiar image, and she's so enigmatic it's like you wonder 'Ooh, what's she thinking,' and I didn't say, 'Oh that's me,' because people had been saying I look like the girl in the painting, when the truth is: I really don't look like the girl in the painting."

And it's true. At the same time, there is something about Johansson that does justice to Vermeer. She is a not a classic beauty, although she's beautiful - as is the girl in the painting. They share delicacy and luminosity, and despite the fact that the actress has her hair done very blond and pulled back tightly enough to discourage any further comparisons with that unknown girl of 1660s Delft, Vermeer might have painted Scarlett Johansson, too. Replete with mystery, puzzlement and, perhaps, one pearl earring.

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