"I try very hard never to distort or dissemble," says Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a draughtsman of considerable talent contracted by a certain Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to make 12 drawings for her absent husband of their English estate. Part of that
"I try very hard never to distort or dissemble," says Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a draughtsman of considerable talent contracted by a certain Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to make 12 drawings for her absent husband of their English estate. Part of that contract involves Mr. Neville taking his pleasure, and that pleasure is Mrs. Herbert. While Mr. Neville aims for fidelity in his drawings, infidelity in private is quite another matter. Then the film becomes a cerebral puzzle when objects start appearing mysteriously in the subjects of Mr. Neville's various drawings: a ladder that wasn't there before, a pair of boots standing in a field. Mr. Neville's penchant for realism is stymied by these clues, which may or may not suggest the murder of Mr. Herbert. Peter Greenaway seems to have directed this, his first art-house success, with the aim of exploring the failings of perspective in art and casting his doubtful eye on the possibility of "faithful" drawings such as those by which Mr. Neville makes his living. Greenaway was, after all, an art student, and must have known that drawing machines like the one Mr. Neville uses in the film (which is set in 1694) led not only to the invention of photography, and therefore of film itself, but also to the renouncing of perspective that informs so much of 20th-century painting.
In the film, Greenaway overlays the story's mysterious elements with highly mannered tableaux, making each scene like a realistic, though sumptuous, painting, while having his actors spout witty and complicated sentences. While this is very entertaining, it has a dual purpose, which is to depict the falseness of surfaces. Mr. Neville's faith in the same is his downfall, and Greenaway's triumph is in his distortions and dissemblings, the narrative lie that gets closer to the truth than any architectural drawing could. --Jim Gay