Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl with a Pearl Earring was an interesting read considering the fact that I had seen the film years back, and quite liked it. It was a pleasant surprise because I hadn’t quite warmed up to Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn which was my introduction to the author.

It is 1665. The story is told by sixteen year old Griet who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household to support her family. Vermeer, the artist, takes a fancy to her because she understands art.

The house is run by the matriarch, the wife’s mother. Although Vermeer was a good artist he was not the best man to provide for his family. Vermeer worked at his own pace. He was moody and temperamental even though the entire house was in debt, and his paintings were the only source of income.

Life was tough in a way the population with access to modern healthcare wouldn’t understand. There was no method of contraception, and it was one baby on the way after another whether you can afford it or want it.

Griet was a strong character for the times she lived in. The name ‘Grit’ would be apt for her because she is gutsy and resilient. She is sharp, and observes things which would elude a casual onlooker.

I was delighted to see Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the book as Vermeer’s friend. I was happy to see a microbiologist in a novel about an artist. Seeing Antony van Leeuwenhoek as a character took me back to my student days of learning how he discovered animalcules.

I confess I had never heard the term camera obscura before. Shameful because I call myself an amateur photographer (the amateur bit does take the sting out of it). Of course my grandpa knew what camera obscura was. He was an engineer and a photographer, and unlike me, a person who understands technicalities well.

A painting which isn’t a painting. The word photograph is yet to be invented because the camera hasn’t been invented yet. What a world it must have been. Since something cannot be captured there is no choice except to draw or paint what fascinated them. A while ago I had read Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life where I got a peek into a world where photography was being invented.

It is not new then wanting to save memories which have an impact on us. The word nostalgia means a great deal to us humans. When we write we do the same thing. Capturing a moment, a place, a situation, an experience, a time.

Spoilers ahead for the book and the film.

It was fascinating the way he tried to make Griet a part of his life – in charge of cleaning his studio, making her understand what an image was. He valued her opinion sensing her intelligence. He allowed her near his beloved colours, to make them, to buy them. He trusted her with his art, he took her suggestions into account and respected her opinions. Intellectually he treated her differently from a maid but the class difference remained. He was in a position of power so he did order her about and forced her to do things.

It’s interesting to see the interplay between their characters, Vermeer and Griet, the artist and the observer who later on becomes the subject. Griet is unusually quiet but she challenged Vermeer in her own way. She played many roles – muse, helper, and model. The relationship of the muse with the artist is fraught with complications and has no clear boundaries. Where does feeling stop and art begin? Can one draw in a completely detached manner from the subject? Would the essence be conveyed? The artist moves on. What of the muse who is caught up in the process unknowingly? Is the subject or the muse (in this case the same person) allowed to feel or have a say in how she is going to be portrayed? All these questions came up while reading the book, and I don’t have any answers.

The book gives us a picture of her life after she leaves the Vermeer household unlike the movie, which shows no clear resolution and leaves it to the audience. I confess to having seen the film first because I didn’t know it was based on a book. I would ask you to read the book first (always). The film shows more moments between them, paints a more romantic picture than it really is. Griet’s family makes her a well rounded character in the book but her family barely makes an appearance in the movie. The film also has more dialogue as opposed to the book in which silences abound.

A world of veneers and facades. The beauty of the book and the film is in its restraint, in the things left unsaid.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

 

The Sense of an Ending (film)

Let me make it clear from the outset The Sense of an Ending isn’t a film you watch while munching popcorn. It is a very quiet movie and every sound is important. It is also not a film you watch with giggly friends (it is not a hangout movie). Of course the name is a dead giveaway. Spoilers ahead.

Ritesh Batra has done a commendable job on adapting The Sense of an Ending into such a lovely film. Philosophical and minimalist like the book but he has redeemed Tony Webster, the unlikable protagonist at the center of it. I love that it ends on a good note, quite unlike the book which ends with unrest (and a punch to the gut). Because Barnes does not believe in redemption. A crusty curmudgeon who sees the error of his ways late in his life but that he does is enough for the audience. The film ends with hope and you carry that into your life.

The film flits effortlessly between the past and the present like the book. Nothing is spelt out in the film too, and if you can believe me, it is more enigmatic than the book; you have to read between the lines and carefully observe what is unfolding on screen to get the complete picture.

Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn!) plays the retired Tony Webster. He is given a profession here as a camera shop owner unlike the book. He does something constructive with his time other than ruminating on the past, and ruining his present by trying to imagine how different scenarios would have played out. It’s what we all do from time to time but allowing it to take over your life is foolishness. Is that what you want to do with your one precious life?

Tony was delusional, unable to see things as they are; he couldn’t see it when Veronica was his college girlfriend and even now when he is an old man. Like Tony, most of us just bumble along in life and try to do the best we can. When the truth finally dawns on him, he is shattered but picks up the pieces and endeavours to do the right thing in his own way. But one’s right is another’s wrong. Continue reading “The Sense of an Ending (film)”