Monday, January 7, 2013

The Draughtsman's Conundrum

Spoilers ahead -- though not quite enough -- for both Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract and Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) has a reputation as a baffling film. An endorsement on the copy I rented praised it as "spectacular science fiction," suggesting that it baffled at least one person.

The draughtsman's drawing frame as viewfinder of the distributed cyborg?

It is quite possible to watch it as a postmodern detective story, a film that resists closure, resists neat solutions, draws attention to its artifice, and revels in its lacuna, latency and plurality, somewhat in the manner of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.

And that's okay to some extent. I think that the absurd antics of the "human statue" can definitely be watched in that way: they don't seem to have much to do with the murder mystery. Besides, if you take a carefully plotted murder mystery, no matter how fair play it appears, and eliminate its denouement -- and Greenaway talks about The Draughtsman's Contract in just such terms -- what you usually end up with is a postmodern detective story, rather than a do-it-yourself puzzle.

That's because detectives tend to be authors-in-disguise, rather than readers-in-disguise. The audience can't just step in and perform the detective's function. Unless the author works very hard and very cleverly to make it possible, asking an audience to do the detective's work is a kind of category error.

So I think it's okay to watch The Draughtsman's Contract in that way, as a postmodern detective story, and particularly because it has so much going on thematically. That means it's not a bad idea to just take the whodunnit out of the equation, and concentrate on thinking about aesthetics, gender, class, perception, memory, objectivity, perspective, landscape, seasons, fruit, fashion, faith, fidelity, gardens, property, conversation, the Bank of England, the cephalapodic indomitability of the establishment, sex, contracts, consent, rape, and a few other bits and pieces. And even perhaps find time to enjoy the terribly witty and arch and blackly comic comedy of manners.

Then again . . .

In his generous cheat sheet at The Guardian, Greenaway suggests that The Draughtsman's Contract does have a solution, one which is similar to that of Christie's famous novel. Everyone did it! Or more specifically:
"At the end of the film, it becomes apparent, rather like Murder on the Orient Express, that the entire family was responsible for the death of Mr Herbert, the unpleasant and antagonistic owner of the house."
Instead of classifying the film as a postmodern mystery (obviating the need for a solution), maybe we can borrow a solution from a different mystery. The benefits are pretty similar: viewers have more than enough rich food for thought without spoiling their appetite chewing over the whodunnit aspect. So it's a sensible and pragmatic comment from Geenaway.

Then again . . .

It is a carefully equivocal, ambiguous comment: who counts as 'family'? Is 'responsible for the death of' the same as 'plotted to murder'?

Here's the thing. Greenaway is wrong. That is, understood in a fairly ordinary way, Greenaway's comparison of The Draughtsman's Contract to The Orient Express seriously mischaracterises the plot of his film.

Now is when I admit that I don't quite have the plum-stuffed stomach for what The Draughtsman's Contract really needs, which is a scrupulous translation into Excel spreadsheets and flow-charts, identifying and discarding possible configurations of action and motive, working out what does and doesn't hold together, based on gruelling repeat watchings.

But leafing the pages of Google, I see no reviews or summaries which take the film seriously as a whodunnit, and I believe it is a whodunnit, and that its creator -- though perhaps a bit guilty of aforementioned category error -- characterises it as a whodunnit. So a bit of thinking aloud, with Wikipedia open in another tab, may be a good start. And maybe others will fill in the gaps, and/or create new gaps where there should be gaps. Here we go.

(1) Was the entire family part of the conspiracy, as Greenaway suggests? Well, who are 'the family'? It's reasonable to include Mr Talmann, Mr and Mrs Herbert's son-in-law, as part of 'the family.' A large element of the conspiracy focuses on Mrs Talmann conceiving an heir by Mr Neville. It is pretty plain that Mr Talmann has not been involved in plotting his own cuckolding. So no!

(2) But what about the 'murder' part? Mr Talmann's involvement here is a bit more ambiguous. Mr Talmann's proprietorial swagger is carefully established. He regards Mr Herbert's estate as his own. Does this mean he knows Mr Herbert is dead? No, I don't think so. Or does it simply mean he still thinks his position is secure, and the ownership of the estate will eventually pass to him or his heir? I think that's it. Mr Talmann treats his hilarious little nephew as his heir. He takes an interest in his education and so forth. Mr Herbert is said to disapprove of women owning property. He won't leave his estate to his widow or their daughter. Under the normal course of events, would the estate pass to Mr Talmann, and thereafter to his nephew?

With Mr Herbert gone so soon, isn't there a greater risk that Mrs Herbert may remarry, and a new heir might intercept Mr Talmann's claim? Or perhaps Mr Herbert has died before including Mr Talmann in his will, so that the estate now passes to his widow by default? Proviso: I'm not convinced I understand how inheritance is supposed to work in the world of the film. The bumf often makes reference to a Married Woman's Property Act of 1694, of which I can discover no trace. There is an 1694 Act outlawing cussin'! But I presume that somewhere in the legislation around 1694 there is buried a provision to do with widows regaining ownership of property which they originally brought to their marriages. The film is at pains to slip in the fact that the estate belonged to Mrs Herbert's ancestors, not Mr Herbert's.

Whatever the precise legal details are, Mr Neville seems to regard Mr Talmann as disinherited by the end of the film. "You speak, of course, Mr Talmann, like a disinherited man." Mrs Herbert now has control over the estate, and this seems to have been gained, in a slightly nebulous manner, at Mr Talmann's expense. For that reason, I think it makes sense that Mr Talmann is not knowingly involved in Mr Herbert's murder.

(3) Was it just the family, every step of the way? Strictly speaking, that might mean Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, Mr Talmann (whom we've just provisionally discounted), and -- ha! -- his funny little nephew (just no). But of course we detect the influence of many, many more hands in this business. In particular, Mrs Herbert's maid Maria seems very despondent as she soaps Mrs Herbert's leg. Mrs Herbert raises a toe and chucks her on the cheek as if to say, Hey, I know what you're thinking. It's okay buddy. We all killed my husband. When it is suggested Mrs Talmann may have leant a ladder against her window herself, she protests that it takes two stout men to move that ladder from place to place. Perhaps we are meant to think of the servants Porringer and Clarke?

So here's my wobbly and uncertain summary of what happened. First a short version, then a long version:

(1) Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talmann plot to kill Mr Herbert. They do so because they dislike him and want more direct control over the estate. They probably have some help with the execution: I think probably Seymore, but perhaps Noyes, Clarke and/or Porringer.
(2) Afterwards, they make it look as though Mr Neville has killed Mr Herbert. His drawings amount to a sort of allegorical signed confession of murder or accessory to murder. In the process they also manage to borrow Mr Neville to conceive an heir.
(3) Mrs Herbert sleeps with Mr Neville one last time. Mr Talmann, believing that Mr Neville has murdered Mr Herbert, that Mr Neville may have tried to frame him for the murder, and that Mr Neville is now trying to marry Mrs Herbert to get his hands on the estate, kills Mr Neville. (He has help too). In this, he was more-or-less doing what Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talmann wanted of him.

That's the short-ish version. What do you think? Does it hold water?

And the longer version:

(1) First Mr Neville -- a talented draughtsman, a pleasantly arrogant social upstart, and a nastily avid dom lover, who could probably learn a thing or two about safewords -- is prevailed upon by Mrs Herbert to stay at her husband's estate while he is away and produce twelve drawings of its landscapes. (The contract, witnessed by Mr Noyse, has sex in it!)

(2) Mrs Herbert then has her husband killed, probably with her daughter's support. Good on her! Although also, what a murderous evil witch.

Now, I'm not sure exactly how much detail the film will yield about the timing and execution of the murder itself. Mr Herbert's body is later dredged up from under his own duckweedy moat, so it must have happened on or near his estate. I think it probably happens on the road near the estate, since Mr Herbert's horse is later found wandering alone and lame, suggesting perhaps a nice early start followed by some violence. Perhaps Mr Seymore is the instrument, since in an early scene Mr Herbert can be heard requesting his company on the jaunt?

I also can't quite rule out Mr Noyes. How would Mrs Herbert incentivise Mr Seymore, I wonder? A murder is a big ask, but perhaps Mr Noyes would accept such a commission out of his love for her and/or his ambition to get on in the world. (A little later, he does in fact get on in the world somewhat). The ambivalent blackmail scene between Mr Noyes and Mrs Herbert, which I'll mention in a moment, does incline me away from the idea that Mr Noyes was Mrs Herbert's assassin, but it's far from conclusive. A servant like Mr Porringer, or Mr Clarke, or Maria, might be another decent bet. Or even Mr Neville's servant Phillip? Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talmann don't quite seem the hands-on types, but you never know. A priority for a re-watch would be to observe whether Mr Seymore disappears at the same time as Mr Herbert, and when exactly he reappears. Anyway, chop! Argh! Splash!

(3) The murder is not yet discovered, but Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, make a start at framing someone. Clues are strewn about the estate. Mr Herbert's riding boots, Mr Herbert's shirt, slashed open at the chest, Mr Herbert's jacket, and a ladder leading up to Mrs Talmann's room, are all faithfully recorded in Mr Neville's drawings.

I think it's unlikely that Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, are using Mr Neville to implicate some third party in Mr Herbert's murder, via information encoded in Mr Neville's notoriously accurate drawings. It is perhaps possible that they are, and that Mr Talmann or Mr Noyes is this intended third party patsy.

Of course, if someone is trying to frame Mr Talmann or Mr Noyes, that doesn't mean they didn't do it!

I can't really see Mr Talmann as the assassin though. He's not particularly bright, and you'd think he'd let something slip. And, for the inheritance-related reasons mentioned above, it seems unlikely that Mr Herbert's murder suits Mr Talmann.

There's a bit more relating to Mr Noyes. Mr Noyes, unlike the rest of the company, has been missing for some crucial interval, during which he might have committed the murder. His dislike of Mr Herbert and his crush on Mrs Herbert are well known. The fact that Mr Noyes blackmails Mrs Herbert for Mr Neville's drawings, shortly after Mr Herbert is pulled from the duckweed, could also suggest that he believes they contain information which implicates him in the murder. (That he seems okay with the idea of selling them could be taken to suggest otherwise, however: it seems his scheme is only to sell them to Mr Talmann, who will buy them and destroy/suppress them, when they are interpreted to Mr Talmann as signs of his wife's infidelity, and of his own scorn for the murdered man. So no real objection there).

The scene between Mr Noyes and Mrs Herbert is an ambivalent scene, and it feels like a crucial one. Mr Noyes first asks for Mrs Herbert's protection from an accusation which he predicts will arise from Mr Talmann. When she is unforthcoming, he seems to be willing to blackmail her about that sex contract she's made with Mr Neville, in return for her protection and some ready cash, or failing that, in return for Mr Neville's drawings.

At one point in the scene, Mrs Herbert calls in Maria, seeming to toy with the idea of summoning Mr Talmann. Is she really toying with that idea? Or does she perhaps only want Maria to overhear something of her encounter with Mr Noyes? Or is this to demonstrate to the audience that Maria is already nearby, and possibly eavesdropping?

It stretches credibility to imagine that Mrs Herbert and Mr Noyes, if they are really alone, and have previously conspired to murder Mr Herbert, would act as they do in this scene. Mr Noyes doesn't act like a co-conspirator in a fragile and perhaps doomed conspiracy. Nor does he seem like a co-conspirator who has just been terribly, awfully betrayed, positioned to take the fall. Mr Noyes sounds either like someone who is genuinely baffled about the murder, and about the circumstances which have slightly implicated him, or someone who is party to the conspiracy -- perhaps intimate with the heart of the conspiracy, more likely in a mild supporting role -- and a bit miffed that his interests have not been diligently respected in the way things are unfolding.

Well, whoever is Mr Herbert's assassin, it is worth asking: is there anything in the drawings which could act as evidence to implicate Mr Talmann or Mr Noyes? In other words, could Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, be trying to frame Mr Talmann or Mr Noyes? I don't think so.

As far as Mr Talmann goes: Mrs Talmann points out that Mr Neville has scrupulously recorded Mr Talmann wearing Mr Herbert's clothes and sort of generally taking the mick. If the drawings were acceptable as the true state of the estate in the first days of Mr Herbert's absence, perhaps the victim's clothes imply that he never set off, and Mr Talmann's alibi, as it were, is weakened. It's not much to go on; very circumstantial stuff.

For anything more solid -- implicating either Mr Talmann or Mr Noyes -- Mr Neville's drawings would have to be admissible as a true record of the appearance of the estate in the first days of Mr Herbert's absence. That's not unreasonable, given his reputation for producing a certain kind of meticulous visual chronicle. But interpreted in this way, what could the drawings actually tell us? I can't quite remember the appearance of Mr Herbert's corpse, which is fairly crucial in this strand of speculation. I think it was clothed. If it was wearing jacket, shirt and riding boots, this would contradict the drawings' fidelity. The drawings would no longer function like snaps of a crime scene.

Is it possible that the drawings might exonerate Seymore, by implying that the murder took place earlier than it actually did? Again, this would only have a chance of making any sense if Mr Herbert's corpse was shirtless, and I'm pretty sure it was all soggy and lacy and pouffy. The drawings can only be taken to represent the true condition of the estate if the shirt Mr Neville drew was down in the moat on the day he purportedly drew it.

So it seems far more feasible that Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, are framing Mr Neville himself.

There is of course -- although this has little to do with the whodunnit aspect -- a kind of beautiful and ponderous visual pun throughout, in that Mr Neville keeps framing various people and things with his special draughtsman's grid, yet it is he who is framed.

The idea that Mr Neville is being framed more-or-less accords with Mrs Talmann's "little speech" to him, though it could do with being spelled out a bit more. Forgetting the ladder for the moment, the anomalies Mr Neville includes in his drawings could all be interpreted as his own fanciful additions: embellishments which teasingly hint that a murder has occurred. If it later turns out that a murder had occurred, one might reasonably wonder about the source of Mr Neville's knowledge. Mr Herbert would moreover likely have been displeased to see himself portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, and his daughter as promiscuous: it could be argued that Mr Neville could draw in this cocksure way because he knew Mr Herbert would never see the drawings.

To know about a murder and keep schtum is a crime in itself. It's never quite clear how Mr Herbert was murdered, but if a slash across the chest were involved, Mr Neville would look all the more suspicious. He would be getting awfully close to drawing the corpse itself.

So that's it: simply by scrupulously drawing what is scrupulously strewn in front of him, Mr Neville transmutes himself into a prime suspect. Mr Neville might of course have then protested, Why would any murderer implicate himself in such a way? To which it might be replied, Well, murderers may well be irrationally boastful. (Crims go on Facebook and "like" the warrant for their arrest; that kind of thing). It might be argued that Mr Neville was not the first criminal to have an exaggerated sense of the multiplicity of meanings inherent in his art.

(4) All that said, this is still a peculiarly roundabout, circumstantial and half-hearted way of framing someone. It depends on a very meticulous, proto-photorealistic artist being mistaken for an allegorist or political cartoonist. It is not exactly foolproof. Perhaps the reason it is so half-hearted is that Mr Neville is not really being set up as a fall guy. He is being set up as a stud. Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, only need to implicate Mr Neville to the extent that he will agree to be blackmailed into doing something he'd probably quite like to do anyway: sleep with Mrs Talmann. Secretly, of course, Mrs Talmann would like an heir by him, Mr Talmann being impotent.

Another reason the framing may be half-hearted is that Mrs Herbert, Mrs Talmann, or both, may already suppose that Mr Neville will not be around to defend himself against any accusations. A murder may be easier to pin on someone who will himself be murdered in due course.

(5) Now, why was Mr Neville asked to stay at the estate in the first place? To be a pawn in the machinations, yes, yes, of course that, but there's a question about when exactly those machinations were devised, and the possibility that machinations set up in one way have been later adapted to machinate slightly differently.

In the film's first scene, Mrs Herbert is very keen for Mr Neville to draw the estate. Upon hearing that her husband will be away for fourteen days, she becomes extremely keen, and that's when she comes up with the specifics: twelve drawings at any price.

A little later, following the implied death of her husband, Mrs Herbert tries, it seems quite genuinely, to break off her contract with Mr Neville.

Now, could this be the beginning of the machinations to frame Mr Neville? If Mr Neville will enforce the contract, then he deserves what he gets! I can't quite remember the order, but I think it's after Mrs Herbert's failure to exit the contract that the clues begin to appear in Mr Neville's landscapes.

If framing Neville, and ultimately having him killed, was an ad hoc response to his heartless determination to deliver his drawings, and collect his rapes, as per contract, why was Mrs Herbert so desperate to have him to stay in the first place?

Perhaps she sees him as a potential father to a grandson? That's no doubt part of it, though if it's the prime reason at that moment, it is hard to see why it is Mrs Herbert, and not her daughter, who originally agrees "to meet Mr. Neville in private and to comply with his requests concerning his pleasure."

Perhaps Mrs Herbert's wants Mr Neville's drawings for herself -- to anatomise and honour a property which will soon be restored to the control of her bloodline. A momento of the murder.

It is just possible that Mrs Herbert only wanted to sleep with him -- quickly finding that to be much less interesting than it had appeared -- or even that her given reason was her real one, that she wished to effect a reconciliation with her estranged husband via a well-chosen gift. The latter would imply a far greater role for Mrs Talmann, or perhaps Mr Talmann, Seymore, Noyes or someone else, in the death of Mr Herbert.

But none of these possibilities really ring true. Mrs Herbert is up to something in that first scene, and the only thing she can reasonably be up to is her husband's murder. Anything else would be a very graceless piece of whodunnit.

Perhaps, not fully appreciating Mr Neville's artistic style, she supposes that his drawings will depict the population of the estate, providing alibis all round.

Perhaps she simply sees in Mr Neville a pliable naivety and arrogance which she knows will be useful in the tricky next few days. Someone she could plausibly frame, perhaps, and whom she does not balk at framing -- the details can be worked out later. "Your significance, Mr Neville," says Mrs Talmann, "is attributable to both innocence and arrogance in equal parts."

It is not unreasonable that Mrs Herbert already knew her husband was preparing a voyage, and so had the bare outlines of her plot in place. Her chilly encounter with Mr Herbert confirms what she already guessed: her subsequent excitement is not because she has only just had an idea, but because the conditions are turning out perfect for its execution.

It follows that Mrs Herbert's later effort to escape the contract is better read as an interlude in her machinations -- a failure of nerve, of heart or stomach, an unwillingness to go through with her plan to frame the young draughtsman -- rather than the beginning of those machinations.

(6) A connected side note: I find it difficult to elegantly include the ladder in all this. It is leant against Mrs Talmann's bedroom window. It does not directly pertain to murder. It pertains to her infidelity. I guess the puppet is being made to say: "The master of this house is dead, and nobody knows except me. I'm enjoying his hospitality and sleeping with his daughter. Ha ha." It is perhaps a stronger signal, more characteristic of a caddish Byronic wannabe given to boasting about his misdeeds in overly simplistic codes.

The theme of inheritance also unites the ladder with the other clues: from that standpoint, the murder of the owner, and the cuckolding of the (I think) next-in-line, are intimately related and of comparable significance.

And perhaps Mrs Talmann wishes to contrive the sense that Mr Neville has already, inadvertently, claimed to have slept with her: so he incurs little extra danger by actually doing so.

(The drawing of the dog waiting outside the bath-house is a bit mysterious: the dog is waiting because Mr Neville is in there with Mrs Talmann. My best fix is that Mr Neville has shifted from someone who draws what he sees to someone who really does draw in the way earlier attributed to him: imaginatively, allegorically, satirically, etc.).

Still, it's a bit hard to understand why Mrs Talmann would implicate herself with that ladder, since framing Mr Neville for accessory to murder is probably sufficient for her heir-milking blackmail. But if the ladder endangers her in a particular way, it also endangers Mr Neville in a particular way. Perhaps what we are seeing is the first indication that Mr Talmann will be the instrument of Mr Neville's death.

(An exotic alternative explanations: Noyes plants the ladder, believing the drawings as they currently exist implicate him in bloody murder, making sure sure suppression of the entire set would also be in the interests of his most likely accuser, Mr Talmann. I don't much like it though).

If so, it's a fairly risky strategy for Mrs Talmann. In the final scene, Mr Talmann and his banditos beat Mr Neville to death ostensibly on account of his designs on ownership of the estate -- but I feel like Mr Neville's suspected but unproven liaisons with Mrs Talman are a rather important subtext.

If the drawings implicate Neville, if Neville is now under duckweed, why burn the drawings? I don't know.

Right, that's enough for now. Maybe more as it occurs to me. There is smoke hanging in the air and leaves are blowing across the lawn. Those small masks are ridiculous. My replacement is Dutch.

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