Tuesday, June 14, 2011


1982, Peter Greenaway
Starring: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne-Louise Lambert, Hugh Fraser, Neil Cunningham

The Draughtsman's Contract is director Peter Greenaway's second feature-length film and his first straightforward narrative work after many years of doing only experimental shorts or documentaries. The film is loosely a country house murder mystery set in 17th century England. A draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Higgins), is hired by Mrs. Herbert (Suzman) to do 12 landscape drawings of her husband's estate in the 12 days that the estranged Mr. Herbert will be out of town. Initially not wanting to take the commission, the arrogant Neville charges an exorbitant price and demands 12 sexual encounters with Mrs. Herbert. To his surprise, she agrees, though it is clear throughout the encounters that Mrs. Herbert is either uncomfortable or directly unwilling, a fact Mr. Neville ignores.

Despite his distaste for the other members of her family, Mrs. Herbert's daughter, Mrs. Talmann, strikes up the same sexual arrangement with Neville that he has with her mother. She blackmails him because curious things turn up in his drawings and she suggests these are clues to the murder of her father, though Neville insists that Mr. Herbert is only out of town. Soon his body is discovered in the moat, Neville's contract is up, and he leaves the house. Unfortunately for him, his passion for Mrs. Herbert causes him to return and make a thirteenth drawing of the site where Mr. Herbert's body was found. While drawing, Mr. Talmann and the other men of the neighborhood appear in disguise and accuse him of Mr. Herbert's murder. He denies it, but they burn his eyes out and beat him to death, throwing him in the moat where the first body was discovered.

Notably the film lacks a denouement and refuses to provide the resolution characteristic of mysteries. It is clear that Mrs. Herbert and her daughter planned the murder, possibly with the help of the gardener. The estate initially belonged to Mrs. Herbert, whose only heir, Mrs. Talmann, was childless probably due to the impotency of her husband. Both women agreed to a sexual relationship with Neville in order to produce an heir and, presumably, to have a lower class scapegoat for the murder of Mr. Herbert. The 1694 setting is particularly important to this element of the story, as it was the year of the Married Women's Property Act during the reign of William and Mary. Though Mrs. Herbert and her daughter feel like decorative pawns for most of the film, they have been manipulating and maneuvering the male characters all along.

The period setting intensifies the carefully measured formalism of the film. Though this is well illustrated by Michael Nyman's excellent Henry Purcell-influenced score, cinematography by Curtis Clark is the heart of the film. There is a stark contrast between the lush, bright gardens and the dark, candlelit interiors. The film is basically color coded in black and white, plus the bright green of the exterior landscape. The characters all dress in exaggerated black or white costumes. For most of the film the aristocracy is in white and Neville is in black, though this is reversed for the final scene, symbolically positioning him as an eternal outsider. The visuals assure us that this is definitely a Greenaway work. Artistic references abound, particularly to paintings by Rembrant, Vermeer and Caravaggio, something Greenaway returns to in later work. The mostly static cinematography and constant framing, both with and without Neville's drawing grid, make the film seem like a series of painted tableaux. Several of the shots are devoted to studying drawings or paintings with a running commentary on art history and analysis from various characters.

This is the first time we see many of Greenaway's major themes that will return again and again throughout his career. The film is primarily concerned with the relationship between sex, power and wealth. The main struggle is that Mrs. Herbert and her daughter want control of their own property. The only way to do this is to dispatch the controlling, disinterested Mr. Herbert and sire an heir. Like many of Greenaway's later films, there is infidelity, odd sexual relationships, the sexual contract and an ongoing discussion about the role of women in the world. Conception and pregnancy play an important role and are intertwined with constant visual and spoken references to fruit, fruit trees, fertility, succession and gardens, as well as repeated references to the myth of Persephone and her kidnapping to the underworld. There is the usual Greenaway concern with art, coded images, symbols, signs, visual representation and issues of perception. As in later works there is a feel for cataloguing, listing obsessions and keeping rigorous schedules. There is the appearance of symmetry, twins and doubling. There is also an odd nonsequitor character, a mute man covered in make up who appears to be a living statue, which gives the film a touch of the absurd and of magic realism.

It might be a little jarring for new viewers, but the characters speak in measured, literary dialogue and are positioned in deliberate poses and at specific angles to the camera. Though this is essentially an English period drama, it is also a satire and borrows liberally from Restoration comedies like Etherige's The Man of Mode, Wycherly's The Country Wife, Behn's The Rover and even Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife. The acting is excellent, particularly from the wonderfully restrained Janet Suzman and Anthony Higgins, whose character Neville is the central figure of the film. Though Neville is a Byronic figure, he never emerges as a true hero due to the pawn-like role he is forced into by Mrs. Herbert. He is ultimately naive, ignorant and a touch tragic.
The Draughtsman's Contract was restored by the BFI in 2003 and given a wonderful DVD release by Zeitgeist. This includes the restored, anamorphic transfer, an introduction and informative commentary track by Greenaway, deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, interviews, etc. This is an excellent treatment for a long neglected masterpiece. The lovely packing also includes two essays by Greenaway and Curtis Clark. This film comes highly recommended and is an excellent starting point for those new to the director's work. Multiple viewings are essential and reveal the many layers of plot intrigue, rich detail and complicated visual symbolism.

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