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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Girl With the Pearl Earring

By Loretta Polish, Ph.D.

The film "Girl With the Pearl Earring" imagines that the subject of the painting by Vermeer was a young girl named Griet who goes to work as a housemaid for the Vermeer family. On the cusp of adolescent awakening, Griet finds herself in a large household fraught with tensions. Ordered to clean Vermeer's studio, she opens her eyes in wonder as she looks into the world of art, experiences familial rivalries and gradually develops a relationship drenched in sexual tension with the artist himself. Different aspects of the film were discussed on November 11, 2004, in an Ann Arbor Real Deal presentation. The discussants were: art critic, Andrea Eis, MFA, Oakland University; psychoanalyst, Merton Shill, Ph.D., University of Michigan and Wayne State University; and academic, Ira Konisgberg, Ph.D., University of Michigan.

Andrea Eis focused on the film as a story of how art, in this particular painting, is created. "(Vermeer) left an imprint of how, through concentrated observation and aesthetic structuring, artists can translate what they see into what we want ..." The film, said Eis, suggests the "role of concentrated vision" in creating art in that the cinematography of the film parallels "a sense of what Vermeer was doing (seeing the many colors in white; replicating the stillness of light falling on surfaces; using the long poses that capture the momentary)..." The film's subtext is the erotic nature of looking, the foundation of "how and why the erotic connection develops for each of them...The painter looked at the girl; the girl looked at the painter. The girl looks at the viewer, the viewer looks at the girl. Each of these interactions is clearly present and specific and critical and, at the same time, unexplainable and unresolvable. We return to the girl because we can never fully know her, or know how Vermeer turned layers of solid pigment and translucent glazes into emotion."

Merton Shill suggested that the film is about "the awakening of sensuality, sexual curiosity, and, as children are wont to do, playing with fire." In coming to the Vermeer household, Griet enters a "seething adult world" fraught with rivalries and tinged with the forbidden fruit of adult sexuality. When she is assigned to straighten his studio, Vermeer's work "shows her the light." Then, “when Vermeer teaches Griet to mix colors for him, their hands brush and flutter. He is letting in the light for her, into his world--how to make it sensual, beautiful, recipes for radiance." In the film "the influence of light...is ever present... [seeming] to emanate from the people themselves. The painting of Griet...has...the quality being both suffused with light and glowing from within, signaling it seems, the dawning and radiance of the inner light of knowledge and understanding. This is the saboteur that insinuates itself amongst the innocent...." When Vermeer’s wife sees the painting of the girl, she calls it obscene. And, indeed, said Shill, "...it is the fantasy behind the painting that is obscene. A norm has been violated. Fantasies are what betray you, reveal your innermost secrets; never think or feel the forbidden, the longed for, even the loved."

Ira Konigsberg placed the film within the province of self-reflexive art: art which is about art. Konigsberg suggested that "Art makes us consider the work from three points of view, the creator, the character and the viewer. The film attempts to bridge two traditions in film, Formalism which focuses on lighting, depth, color, the formal aspects of image and Realism, which creates the illusion that you're looking at the world as it is in reality. This film focuses on one way that art interplays with reality, how art uses reality as the source of its creativity." In the film's developing relationships the characters carry on their relationship through glances at each other. This "sexual nature of viewing...is echoed in how the viewer's watching the film is also sexual, a voyeurism or spectatorship in which the audience finds pleasure in watching unseen."

Although critics had cited the film's weak narrative, the speakers agreed that the medium of this film was its message: how the power of the visual images enhanced the themes of voyeurism and the erotic nature of looking. The excellence of each presentation and the electric quality of the ensuing discussion made for a memorable program.