Film festivals are pure bliss for serious cinephiles, who like to think they're two steps ahead of the movie-going masses. Vermonters who miss Telluride every Labor Day weekend can always catch some of the Colorado event's best selections at Dartmouth College later in the month. Beginning September 19, the 2003 New Hampshire series will screen a half-dozen such pictures. All six were also shown at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where I've just spent a celluloid-smitten 10 days.
Girl With a Pearl Earring, which kicks off Telluride at Dartmouth on Friday, dazzled audiences at the prestigious Canadian extravaganza. The co-production from the United Kingdom and tiny Luxembourg, directed by Peter Webber, is based on Tracy Chevalier's 2001 best selling novel about Johannes Vermeer. Both imagine how the volatile Dutch painter's art and domestic life might have intersected.
Almost every scene is framed like a Vermeer portrait, radiating much of the same luminous quality the mid-17th-century master captured on canvas. The lighting is most effective when reflected on the lovely face of actress Scarlett Johansson. She portrays Griet, a young servant hired to clean the family's home. Her presence throws the household into crisis, as Vermeer's wife and children are tormented by jealousy.
Girl With a Pearl Earring provides a vivid, if fictitious, exploration of an all-consuming aesthetic vision. But that passion parallels the erotic nature of Vermeer's fascination with Griet, a particularly intelligent and sensitive adolescent. He teaches her to mix pigments; she poses for a portrait. They are soul mates in an unsympathetic society still marked by essentially medieval mores.
Colin Firth smolders better than almost any actor alive today -- think Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice -- and he plays Vermeer with the requisite intensity. Tom Wilkinson, on the other hand, gives the lusty patron van Ruijven an almost bodice-ripping villainry that threatens to turn the generally restrained story into a Harlequin Romance. As Vermeer's calculating mother-in-law, Judy Parfitt adds pragmatism to a saga of forbidden love in a richly visual context.
The second Telluride export, scheduled for Saturday at Dartmouth, is The Bar-barian Invasions. Denys Arcand's drama, a best-screenplay winner at Cannes this year, opened the Toronto fest. Set in Montreal, with two forays into Vermont, the film depicts family dysfunction that has become estrangement.
Remy (Remy Girard), the aging father, is a retired history professor with a terminal illness. A confirmed philanderer, he has been divorced from ex-wife Louise long enough for a friendship of sorts to emerge. Their son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) -- resembling a cross between David Duchovny and Mark Wahlberg -- flies home from England, where he's earned a fortune in the financial markets.
Remy twice treks south to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Bur-lington for scans to determine the extent of his disease. (At a festival brunch, where Invasions earned another reward, Arcand told me U.S. immigration rules made actual shooting in the Green Mountain State all but impossible). In the film, it soon becomes clear that the protagonist's pain could be managed better with heroin than the morphine administered by the bureaucratic Quebec hospital where he's a patient. So Sebastien persuades a junkie named Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze, who won the Cannes best-actress prize for this role) to supply the drug and help his father either snort or inject it.
Sebastien organizes a farewell bash by summoning all of Remy's old pals and mistresses to his bedside. It's the same cast, gone grayer now, reprising their roles from Arcand's 1986 classic Decline of the American Empire. In this sequel, they are still a cerebral bunch, never happier than when debating the fine points of Greek civilization with the speed of TV sit-com \witticisms. Many of their fast-paced chats take place at a cottage on Lake Memphremagog where Remy has chosen to draw his final breath.
The resolution of the father-son rift is genuinely moving. But Arcand's female characters often spout dialogue that sounds rather masculine, undercutting an otherwise powerful tale. The sexual perspectives in particular are a bit too macho.
Sunday through Wednesday, the remaining Telluride at Dartmouth fare includes: Dogville, Lars von Trier's offbeat film about a woman (Nicole Kidman) fleeing gangsters; I'm Not Scared, from Italy, in which a boy discovers another child in peril; Touching the Void, an adventure with two climbers facing disaster in the Peruvian Andes; and Osama, about an adolescent girl who masquerades as a boy to get an education in Taliban-era Afghanistan.
For more information about the film series, call 603-646-2422 or visit www.hop.dartmouth.edu .