The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), Dir: Peter Greenaway, Zeitgeist Films
If you watch Peter Greenaway’s introduction to The Draughtsman’s Contract, an alarm may go off as he reveals how he conceived the film. A fine artist by training, Greenaway had a teacher whose mantra was: “Draw what you see and not what you know”. The Draughtsman’s Contract is Greenaway’s cinematic elucidation of that theory.
“Interesting,” you may wanly reflect aloud while inwardly cringing in anticipation of watching a concept-laden piece sink under the weight of an ill-suited, irrelevant narrative. Your reaction would be understandable. The movie was well received but notorious for its lack of clarity; The Guardian reviewer suggested, “Perhaps the four-hour version which may one day become available is clearer if not more concise.”
Though the film has not been released in its un-cut form, one thing that has become considerably clearer in the current DVD release is the quality of the picture. While the plot and dialogue remain at times baffling, the restoration process has enabled Greenaway’s artistic philosophy to emerge with glittering and transcendent precision.
The restoration processes, which are demonstrated via side-by-side before and after clips in the special features, measurably sharpen the picture and accentuate the narrow fields of vision and symmetric construction perceived by the draughtsman, Mr. Neville. The images are so strikingly exact that we, like Mr. Neville, are easily seduced into the world we see, and away from the one we know. This is a whodunnit, with clues hidden in the most stark and controlled environments with elegant, malicious irony.
Mr. Neville has been commissioned to draw 12 sketches of Mrs. Herbert’s estate, so she may use his work as a reconciliation gift to her estranged husband. Although the draughtsman enforces absurdly fastidious rules ensuring that the landscapes are kept clear of people and disruption while he draws, strange items begin to appear in his drawings. These ultimately constitute evidence implicating the draughtsman in the murder of the absent husband.
The draughtsman is entirely unaware of these items, as is the audience. The film is flawlessly filmed through Neville’s frame of vision. He draws what he sees and not what he knows; we see only what he draws. While each frame offers geometric exactitude, the plot remains covert and amorphous. We, like the artist, are so enveloped in aesthetic perception that we remain oblivious to the stormy but cloistered narrative.
Greenaway’s aesthetic lends itself to enigma. Many of the film’s frames could be baroque paintings come to life. The hedges and gardens surrounding the home are decorous to the point of seeming ghostly. A statue walks around and mocks characters like a demented Greek chorus. Though his societal role is never defined, when film devolves into pure absurdity the statue’s presence eases us out of our dependence on visual cues.
Michael Nyman’s score serves to suspend our disbelief and hypnotize us into a state of awed disorientation. The music deftly indicates that the film is both a period piece and post-modern tour-de-force. The score asks the audience to exist simultaneously in both realms.
Ultimately, the achievements of the film are exemplified by theme and imagery, not plot. While this may pose a problem for some, the essential triumph is Greenaway’s successful execution of a philosophy-based proposal. The poignant relationship between aesthetics, emotions and consciousness rise above the narrative murk.