TIFF Review: 'Tim's Vermeer'

Note: 'Tim's Vermeer’ was screened for our critic at The 2013 Telluride Film Festival, where it played before TIFF.

Earlier this year, Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” offered up a litany of conspiracy theories tied into “The Shining,” less as a means of validating them and more as an examination of how great art lends itself to boundless interpretation. To a more engaging extent, “Tim’s Vermeer” -- the feature directorial debut of mostly mute performer Teller -- takes a closer look at the works of the great Dutch painter through the prism of one man’s very particular hypothesis.

A San Antonio software developer and inventor, Tim Jenison counts among his many hobbies and interests an obsession with Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, the remarkable photorealism of which outstripped his 17th-century peers. While the artist’s undocumented technique has long been the fascination of many an art aficionado, Jenison has a theory which not only suggests that Vermeer may have used a well-placed mirror to replicate a given scene, but that any amateur could arguably do just the same. As such, with considerable time, money and resources at hand, Tim sets out to paint his own Vermeer -- a worthy facsimile of “The Music Lesson” (a.k.a. “Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman”).

Teller and producer/partner Penn Jillette find much (rightful) amusement in Jenison’s obsessive pursuit, as the man ventures overseas to see his idol’s home and work for himself, returns to the States and devotes more than 200 days to faithfully replicating Vermeer’s room in a north-facing warehouse. He makes his own lens and mixes his own paints, every bit the autodidact when it comes to fashioning an era-appropriate scenario for his project. Eccentric though Jenison may seem, his approach proves to be compelling when it counts, a process that not only incorporates a vital amount of examination on part of the viewer, but invites a fair number of questions as to the value of ostensible talent and available technology in the service of art.

Would it have been a cheat at the time if Vermeer didn’t manage such remarkable fidelity by hand? Are those much-heralded paintings any less valuable in hindsight if anyone can create a work of equal merit using these methods? These weighty concerns are broached in an otherwise improbably breezy context, with Jillette offering up casual commentary and on-screen graphics making seemingly erudite concepts of ocular trickery easy to grasp.  One Vermeer expert declares that Jenison’s project doesn’t constitute cheating on the grounds that “it’s still hard to do,” and that agonizing attention to detail becomes the film’s primary focus to an almost wearying degree in the home stretch.

However, Teller manages a careful enough balance between painstaking technique and a larger cultural context over 80 brisk minutes to make even minor revelations feel like major moments, and although he may not display the formal chops to rival the likes of “F for Fake” or “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” this alone bodes well enough for his coming career behind the camera. After all, “Tim’s Vermeer” isn’t just a sneakily accessible exercise in art studies with a priceless end credits song; it’s the most fun you’ll have watching paint dry all year.

SCORE: 8.8 / 10

Sony Pictures Classics will release "Tim's Vermeer" later this year.