Artists and historians have long puzzled over the singularly uncanny paintings of Johannes Vermeer, marveling at the photographic qualities of works that predated the invention of photography by centuries. Convinced that there was a technological aspect to the painter’s technique, nonartist and nerd-of-all-trades Tim Jenison embarked on a six-year odyssey to emulate 17th-century materials and working conditions in order to paint his own Vermeer work from scratch. Leading scholars of trickery Penn & Teller were on hand to record the process (the latter is credited as director), which included consultations with artist David Hockney in London; learning how to mix era-appropriate paint in Amsterdam; and meticulously re-creating Vermeer’s studio in a garage in San Antonio. And that’s all before Jenison picked up his brush and nearly lost his mind.
The illusionist duo’s legendary showmanship isn’t just well honed, it’s adaptable—their unapologetic art doc is unfailingly engaging and accessible, leveling the plain so that the optics of the camera obscura are as legible as Jenison’s infectious enthusiasm. So it’s surprising, and frankly impressive, that the film’s final act becomes a steadfast document of tedium, dwelling on the 130 days in which our subject stares into a series of reflected mirrors and painstakingly applies paint to canvas. Jenison’s mounting impatience is relatable, and helps to underscore his amateurism—a crucial control in an experiment that seeks to prove that visual schemes were greatly responsible for Vermeer’s effects. Yet the film ultimately plays less like an experiment than a demonstration of a tinkerer’s ingenuity. Tim’s finished Vermeer may resemble the real thing, but Tim’s Vermeer never tackles the true mystery of why the latter is actually incomparable.
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