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DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway
FEATURING: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne-Louise Lambert, Hugh Fraser
PLOT: At the finale of the 17th-century, the wife of a boorish aristocrat contracts with a draughtsman to contrive a series of drawings; unexpected pictographic clues appearing in the artist’s renderings suggest a deadly conspiracy.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Greenaway tackles his first feature-length narrative with such structure, symmetry, and formalism that it might conceivably collapse into its own pretentious confinement. However, regular spikes of ornate bawdiness and cryptic banter, alongside Nyman’s jaunty film score, render the whole affair so baroquely flippant that the inclusion of a living garden statue is merely the ultimate, strange garnish on this eccentric appetizer to Greenaway’s impending career.
COMMENTS: “It has been fancifully imputed that Mr. Neville saw you as a deceived husband.” If that withering—and scandalous—insult vexes you, I strongly recommend against attempting to endure Peter Greenaway’s high-falutin’ whodunnit. On the other hand, if you wish to pry, peep, poke, and peek at the behind-closed-doors (and at times, on-the-lawn-somewhat-obscured-by-a-parasol) doings of the sickeningly wealthy and witty, the droll and devastating—veritably, the very cream of late-17th-century excess—Greenaway’s soufflé of mannerisms, ostentation, lines, lists, longitudes, and lasciviousness baked into this country-house mystery will not only fit the bill, but fit it perfectly with a stretch of laced linen that will leave you petrified to touch it with your coarse peasant hands.
Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), whose observations Mr. Noyes infers from prior insinuations and sketch-work, is a draughtsman by trade, and a haughty rake by inclination. On the eve of Mr. Herbert’s departure, Neville attends a soirée hosted by Mrs. Herbert, who wishes, she claims, to furnish her husband with a set of exterior drawings of their estate as a gift upon his return, in hopes of salvaging, at least, some civility in their marriage. Initially disinclined, Neville agrees only after much pursuit by Mrs. Herbert (and her daughter, Mrs. Talmann), and the inking of a curious contract which delineates recompense both financial and sexual. Mr. Herbert leaves for business, and Mr. Neville ensconces himself as he begins his work—and play.
I beg your indulgence for what is, even for me, an excess in flowery language; but such is the overwhelming effect of this strange matrix of conflicting impulses and shifting conspiracies. Greenaway kicks the door down for this one (doubtless because its vertical line displeased him) and comes swinging in full force with his painterly mise-en-scène and artful dialogue thronging the screen and speakers. Frames within frames, within frames; candlesticks joining and isolating conversers, sometimes positioned as an extension of a phallus-above-the-table (Neville’s, naturally); ordered chaos—there is nothing, it appears, left to ill-rendered whim nor faith in dreamscapes.
The “conflicting impulses” mentioned play out primarily between the pristine structure of the film (pacing, staging, scoring, framing, &c.) and the often-hilarious, invariably biting dialogue, which itself is masked with powder-splotched cosmetics and finery that could pass for amigraine. And Greenaway looooves sex on shameless display. As if imitating the outward prudish mien of its characters, The Draughtsman’s Contract conveys all manner of carnality, some of it extreme, while only ever exposing a single breast on screen. Anthony Higgins—witness to this breast, among other parts and places—is perfectly cast as the cocksure draughtsman, believing he is outwitting the conspiratorial axis of Mrs. Herbert and her daughter. Though doomed from the start, he careens toward his fate on a cloud of magniloquent artistry, wit, and lasciviousness.
As far as I could determine, the extras on Kino Lorber’s 40th anniversary, 4K release of The Draughtsman’s Contract were lifted straight from the preceding UK-only disc. Though they are scant, the included introduction from Peter Greenaway is a delightful and informative ten-minute essential, outlining the director’s intentions and providing a brief history of the film. The even briefer interview with Michael Nyman succinctly and charmingly relates how these two lovers of lists began their collaboration. Last, and by no means least, the video and sound are perfection in itself—and as Greenaway would observe, it is the deft combination of those elements that filmmaking is all about.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Agatha Christie this ain’t, but it is weirdly wonderful… the film shows a unique talent getting to grips with narrative cinema to create something which is as engaging and alluring as it is baffling and perplexing.”–Mark Kermode, BFI