We are moving through a large room in a museum, past a desk at which sits a curator engrossed in a book. She does not look up as we pass through a doorway into an airy exhibition of drawings. Our calm reverie is ended by a voice, clipped and irritable, which informs us that, “Tulse Luper arranged all these drawings in order for me one Monday afternoon when he heard that I was ill.”
Thus begins a tour of the drawings. Some the narrator has been given, others acquired in various ways, including stealing them. At first, naively, we see them as artworks, but it’s soon clear that for the narrator they have a great value that has nothing to do with art. To him they are maps. If he can thread their mazes and find his way through the empty spaces between them, he will at length come to H.
What H is, is not explained. The narrator himself will not know until he gets there, and by then, he accepts, it will not matter. His long walk begins at Hestergard, a place impossible to return to, once you have left it. The road, marked in red, like a blood orange, or real blood (type A), a sinister analogue to yellow brick, leads from one drawing to another, through towns with names like Canter Lupis, Hesgadin, Manephia. As artworks they are exquisite (and this film surely began as an attempt to explore their details), but although the narrator always has some anecdote, some trivia to relate about each one, he entirely misses their beauty.
The world of art and art galleries is soon left behind as we pass along lines and through channels and lanes into the drawings themselves, lost with the narrator in a strange world of competitive ornithology. Now and again our attention is distracted by the flutter of birds’ wings. The narrator is aided by the mysterious Tulse Luper (a legend among Greenaway devotees) and thwarted by Van Hoyten, a man who looked after the owls at Amsterdam Zoo and who now lives in Assidium in a room full of feathers, going out on nights of the full moon to count birds.
Tulse Luper warns the narrator that an audit of European birds should not be undertaken by someone with an ulterior motive. The narrator obligingly thrice lights damp wood fires in the hope that the smoke will obscure the moon and prevent the count. But it is Van Hoyten who prevails, by beating the narrator to an important map in the bazaar of Assidium, preventing him from taking up the post of Keeper of Owls at the Amsterdam Zoo, which Van Hoyten had given up, but which he now selfishly reclaims.
Gradually, with Michael Nyman’s score heightening the tension, the narrator has to admit that he is lost. For a long time, we wander with him through the alleys and labyrinths of a single drawing, from which there seems to be no escape, but then we are in marshes, large reed-fringed meres in which birds plunge and play.
I will leave it to you to discover this glorious film and find out how it ends. It is often called “surreal”, but I find no surrealism in it, just as I find none in Jorge Luis Borges, whose spirit, armed with maps, ciphers, labyrinths and mystical alephs, hovers over these deep waters. This is the landscape of the mind and we are on an alchemical journey.
Noi andavam per lo solingo piano
com’om che torna a la perduta strada,
che ‘nfino ad essa li pare ire in vano.
Across the desolate plain we made our way
like someone looking for his proper road
who till it’s found again must aimless stray
Purgatorio, I. 128-20
In time the narrator’s voice, with its unending stream of complaints, small failures and pretty resentments, seems to fade, becomes like an inner voice to which we cease to listen and we are once again lost in the reverie which he, the narrator had interrupted. For this was always our journey, and it is we who are lost, looking for H, whatever H may be.
Peter Greenaway, talking about this film, said, “I’ve always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going – in a sense it’s three tenses in one. It’s also an amazing ideogram of information that is very useful and, perhaps most pertinently, also not at all useful. My father had recently died, and the subtitle of the film was ‘The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist’ – my father was one. Through his life he had amassed an extraordinary amount of information about bird study, and I was very aware that with his death – as indeed with any death – a vast amount of very personalized information had gone missing, was totally irrecoverable. The film is on the journey a soul takes at the moment of death, to whatever other place it ends up – H being either Heaven or Hell. I devised 92 maps to help this particular character get there. The whole film was divided into five sections that represented movement from a very urban landscape to a wilderness landscape, and there were references and cross-references to all sorts of systems.”