Framing a Murder
the draughtsman's contract (1982)
directed by Peter Greenaway
December 8, 2020
In much the same way Hollywood loves making movies that both glorify and critique the making of Hollywood movies, Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract lavishes in the romanticism of classical perspective, placing it on an idealist pedestal while also dissecting its role in how we perceive the world around us. Presented in an overtly theatrical manner, this costume-comedy murder-mystery erotic noir makes a clear statement on the presence of the frame by the very act of “drawing” attention to itself. Greenaway is encouraging viewers to question what they see, and, in so doing, tackles the seemingly insurmountable beast known as the ideology of the visible – a term Jean-Louis Comolli explores in his aptly titled essay “Technique and Ideology.” Comolli, painting the history of renaissance perspective in broad brushstrokes, claims photography and cinema are the apex of representational modes of reality. His primary concern is that critics and general audiences may see the camera as “‘a passive recording apparatus’” (144), whereas Comolli asserts that its mechanical properties are inherently ideological. Although there is not a single camera to be found in this film’s period setting (a near farcical exaggeration of 17th century English aristocratic country life), a great deal is said on the follies and repressed dangers of film’s idiosyncrasies. In exploring the use of depth of field, framing devices, and (occasionally) visible subjects in The Draughtsman’s Contract through this lens of ideological perspective, we the audience gain a self-reflexive awareness of our participation as viewers not only to the silly unravelling of a murder plot, but to the greater hegemony filmic reproduction maintains over the human eye.
From the opening credits alone, The Draughtsman’s Contract declares itself as a fabricated window into upper-class society, unashamedly aware of its filmed state. Look to the transparently staged vignettes of these noblemen and -women, dressed in the most outrageously flamboyant evening attire as they woodenly stand or sit in total servitude to the camera’s line of sight – at times going so far as to look directly into its lens. There is a high degree of artificiality to the world on-screen; strategically planted fruits and candles in the foreground, a paneled backdrop oftentimes as black as masking drapes, and a heavy emphasis on symmetrical blocking such as the twins lifting their glasses of wine in comedic unison. Even more overwhelming than the musical harpsichord and operatic vocals wavering in and out of the atmosphere is the dialogue, a sort of music unto its own. It is stilted to the point of incomprehensibility and Greenaway provides no segue. Viewers are plunged head-first into this extravagant facade, forced to either play catch-up or get left behind. The effect this has is unlike many other films which aim to draw their audiences into the story rather than distance them. Instead of relying on the seamless illusion of continuity editing and the convincing mise-en-scène one has come to expect in a narrative picture (not to mention the true purpose of exposition which is to enlighten the audience, not befuddle them), all the plot-heavy information is sprawled out in the first ten minutes in flowery lettering between literal calligraphy detailing the credits. All of these peculiarities may seem to be solely aesthetic techniques in opposition to Comolli’s interest in the politics within the technical fabric of cinema, but it is this careful on-screen choreography that reveals its inner workings. Calling attention to the filmmaking is a Brechtian stain on the white sheets of realism, and in a medium “where we are primarily concerned with seeing, with satisfying the scopic drive mobilized within each spectator, disturbances to the spectator’s vision are precisely what implicate and activate his gaze” (185).
Where the film most obviously acts as an index to Comolli’s stance on the ideological nature of perspectival machines is in the drawing sequences. The same way some would argue the scientific neutrality of the camera renders it pure of ideology, a vessel to the filmmaker’s subjective ideas, so too one might be inclined to believe the perspectiva artificialis of renaissance painters and draughtsmen is a technique void of a larger influence. “‘The most excellent manner of painting is that which imitates the best,’” writes da Vinci, “‘which renders the painting most similar to the natural object that it represents’” (162-163). While this is certainly the draughtsman’s goal, to replicate the grounds as precisely as possible, the very act of framing the house in the manner he deems subjectively superior to any other restricts the eye to this particular view. In other words, one man is organizing the entire world’s line of sight. Immediately after the contract is agreed upon by the two parties (Mr Neville and Mrs Herbert), a voice-over dictates the strict scheduling and conditions under which the twelve drawings are to be created; livestock must be herded out of sight, windows are to remain closed, wet sheets laid out on the bushes – and an allotted timeframe each day so as to preserve the shadows. This is ideology of the visible in action. Anyone admiring Mr Neville’s drawings five, ten, twenty years after they are completed (which, by the end of the movie, turns out to never have been the point) will not see all the decisions made to reach the final product. We the audience, seated on our deified thrones beyond the fourth wall, actually watch these proceedings take place, and it in turn makes us question the mechanics behind the same moving images that brought up the questions in the first place. The greatest example of this reawakening is in the cuts between the landscape and the drawing. Two identical views: one real, one replicated. Here is where Comolli believes the eye of the spectator becomes enslaved to the instrument of replication, rendering it obsolete. That single cut from what the camera sees as a manicured garden to what the camera sees as a half-finished pencil drawing of that manicured garden is “the precise moment that the triumph of monocular perspective as a system of representation … seems to be assured” (163). Comolli goes on to say that “it is at this very moment that the eye abruptly appears as neither entirely unique, nor entirely irreplaceable, nor particularly perfect” (163), because it is fooled into believing what it sees to be true. Funnily enough, it is Greenaway’s hands that seal his authorial presence while revealing our spectatorial fate in the film, being both the director and true artist behind Mr Neville’s drawings. To further disrupt this verisimilitude, Greenaway cleverly weaves the pieces of a murder puzzle into the wire-grid frame by orchestrating a seductive undressing of Mrs Talmann in the garden. The clothes she leaves behind are chaos in the order Mr Neville seeks to create, but he, like the spectator, is blind to what they signify until it is too late.
This play on blindness versus perception is personified by the strangest element in the film: at times when he is least expected, a naked man painted head to toe in some natural pigment will intrude upon the frame. His first sighting is hardly noticeable, almost an error on the part of the crew for letting such a caricature climb onto the set and pose over the garden rooftop where the aristocrats dine just ten feet below. Although his presence is never explained, and at times even unacknowledged by those who inhabit the movie-world, this living statue may serve as a thematic bridge between the two-dimensional reality on-screen and life as we know it off-screen. The use of depth of field, for example, which is meant to immerse the viewer into a deeper trance of believability (although André Bazin and Jean Mitry differ on this point, Comolli sees it as a crucial factor to the “illusion of the third dimension” (172) which can be employed to varying degrees according to the filmmaker’s will), is instead another tool of disruption. As we sit and laugh at the powdered men in wigs who are oblivious to this human pest, reveling in our all-seeing eye and possibly drumming up their lack of awareness to be a scathing critique on the ignorance of the aristocracy, we are unconsciously reminded of those things which ought not to be in sight. Just as Mr Talmann walks right past the camouflaged nude in the background, the spectator accepts the visible as the most important, the only important, part of cinema – right up until the very last shot. Spitting into the face of a deceased Mr Neville is not only a crack aimed directly at the high class and their ridiculous solemnity towards art, but at the audience which has come along for the sheer entertaining value of it all. In his own crude way, the living statue is reminding the audience of cinema’s true origins. As Comolli writes: “The cinema thus owes its existence to the reciprocal reinforcement of an ideological demand (‘to see life as it is’) and an economic demand (to make it a source of profits)” (168); two brutally depressing truths which coincide with Mr Neville’s contract. He is there to capture twelve moments in time, but solely for his own financial and Freudian satisfactions. Gone is the “magic of the movies,” the mystical aura that surrounds original creativity. What the The Draughtsman’s Contract has shown us through frames within frames is the only three things this world has to offer: sex, money, and murder.
If there’s anything to take away from Greenaway’s style and how it relates to Comolli’s theories on ideology, it’s artificiality. The disruptive filmmaking techniques which abound in The Draughtsman’s Contract are a delightful shock compared to the homogeneity of today’s movie market. It is a movie about seeing, about spectatorship, about being a witness to something perverse – feelings the average ticket-buyer may not realize he/she has become desensitized to. Yet for as much as both Greenaway and Comolli seem to encourage a heightened scrutiny of the medium, one cannot help but leave the film with one question: would it be better to turn a blind eye to the invisible rather than risk having one’s eyes poked out by a fiery stick as a result of having seen too much?
Comolli, Jean-Louis. “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field.” In Cinema against Spectacle, translated and edited by Daniel Fairfax, 143-193. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015.