The Draughtsman's Contract
English Title: The Draughtsman's Contract
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: BFI, Channel 4/BFI
Director: Peter Greenaway
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Cinematographer: Curtis Clark
Editor: John Wilson
Runtime: 104 minutes
It is 1694 and Mrs Herbert, the wife of a wealthy landowner, has commissioned Mr Neville, a talented but arrogant draughtsman with social aspirations, to draw twelve elevations of her husband’s country estate to mark his birthday. Neville is initially reluctant but agrees when an unusual deal, the contract of the title, is struck. In it, Mrs Herbert agrees to have sexual relations with Mr Neville each day in return for the drawings. But Mr Herbert, believed to be away on business, is found dead in the moat. Mrs Herbert’s daughter, Mrs Talmann, who has a loveless and childless marriage to an impotent German aristocrat, draws up a similar contract with Mr Neville in the hope of conceiving a son to inherit her mother’s estate. Mr Neville soon begins to wonder if he has unwittingly recorded evidence of the murder in his drawings.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is one of the most auspicious and distinctive feature debuts in British film, and a key work in the establishment of an auteur-led British art cinema in the 1980s. It was the first co-production between the BFI and the then newly-founded Channel 4, who would continue to co-fund important low-budget British films for the remainder of the decade. It was also a genuine sleeper. The enigmatic narrative, country-house setting, elaborate costume design, the late seventeenth-century decoration, arcane dialogue, and Michael Nyman’s Purcell-inspired score all combined to capture the popular imagination of the time.
The film, which marked Greenaway’s first engagement with anything resembling a conventional narrative, and his first significant use of professional actors, at first seemed rather incongruous with his previous work. Greenaway, who trained as a painter and film editor, had established a modest reputation for a series of highly idiosyncratic and increasingly ambitious experimental films made in the late 1970s, such as structural film parody Vertical Features Remake (1978) and epic mock-documentary The Falls (1980). However, many of the attributes that made these early films so distinctive, such as the erudite, if rather pedantic wordplay, constant allusions to other works of art, and the deadpan black humour, were in fact carried over into this feature film.
Greenaway’s conception of The Draughtsman's Contract was at first rather more experimental. His initial cut ran close to four hours and featured parallel narratives involving the household servants and a human statue. However, the producer, Peter Sainsbury, encouraged him to remove over half of this material and produce a comparatively straightforward, more commercially-viable film. While many of Greenaway’s subsequent features conform to this two-hour model and have a classical three-act structure, a more eccentric organizing principle, such as the alphabet in A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and sequential numbers in Drowning by Numbers (1988), often betrays his roots in the avant-garde.
While many of the recurring concerns of Greenway’s work are present in The Draughtsman’s Contract, including the self-reflexive equation of painting with cinema, and intertextual references to other films (including Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966, and Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961), Greenaway’s style is not yet fully formed. Whereas the films from A Zed and Two Noughts onwards were shot in 35mm and combine elaborate tracking shots with meticulous lighting reminiscent of the Dutch Masters, The Draughtsman’s Contract was shot on 16mm, with the camera often locked off using predominantly available light. Nevertheless, it is visually striking in a way that belies its humble £200,000 budget.
Although the film was generally a commercial and critical success, it was far from universally liked. Many film-makers working at the more avant-garde end of British cinema reacted harshly against the film’s excess of narrative and overtly literary qualities, criticizing the BFI and Sainsbury’s move towards more commercially-viable features. The mainstream, however, damned it as pretentious, too clever, and an example of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. However, British cinema has always had an anti-intellectual bias and it should come as little surprise that Greenaway has always enjoyed a far greater reputation in Europe.
Author of this review: Brian Hoyle
Peer reviewer: Brian Hoyle