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The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)
An eye for optical theory
In this much criticised and often misunderstood movie, Greenaway brings us a rich, allegorical riddle that luxuriates in its idyllic restoration setting. It succeeds on its own merits even if the story may confuse the viewer at first, the sheer pun and wit of the script and extravagant use of costume and visual gag see to that. We have enormous wigs, living statues that really pee, an indulgence of fruit, erotic interludes and a general celebration of pleasure. Behind this is a brilliantly constructed story that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. We have an 'Agatha Christie' style country house murder mystery, an investigation of class and religious opposition at the end of the 17th century, a philosphical study of the problem of artists' perception of the world (is what we 'see' what we actually perceive it to be?).
At root though, Greenaway knows his mythology and understands the role of the fertility rite across societies and cultures. In this allegory, Mrs Herbert persuades the Draughtsman (Mr. Neville) to draw her husband's estate, sexual favours being the lure. The drawings are merely a front for a deeper and darker motive: ensuring that the matrimonial line will produce the heir to the country estate. The line is blocked by lack of a direct heir, the infertility of Mrs. Herbert's son in law and the fact that women cannot inherit the property. Evidence of Mr Neville's indiscretion eventually emerges in the 12 drawings for all to see -discarded clothing, ladders leading up to bedrooms- all rendered faithfully by the draughtsman who tries 'never to distort, nor dissemble' what he sees through his optical device. In so doing, he seals his fate. Mrs Herbert ensures that blame for both the death of her husband and adultery of her daughter is put on Neville. By the end of the movie he (and his drawings) are redundant, since we can assume he has borne the heir.
In ancient Greece, the Gods ruled the seasons and the fertility of the land. Here, Mrs Herbert draws the link between those times and her role as the real custodian of the 'fertility' of her husband's estate. Watch for the scene near the end when she places the pomegranate on Neville's stomach. The women are in control throughout, the men mere bit players, the drones and worker bees. Watch and listen with care! This is a film that repays many viewings. 'There is much there to be surprised at, and applauded!!'.