He has an eye for optical theory, but Judge William Lee couldn't draught his way out of a cardboard box.
"Four garments and a ladder do not lead us to a corpse."
Moving out of the realm of experimental short films, in 1982 Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book) made his first feature-length narrative film. The Draughtsman's Contract was the transitional work between his focused treatments on personal obsessions to his larger canvas explorations of many of those same personal obsessions. Adapting his style for a more mainstream audience, the director lay the foundation in this work for a brand of movie that was all his own.
Facts of the Case
The English countryside in 1694 is the setting for grazing sheep, upper-class snobbery and nefarious stratagems. Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins, Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a talented draughtsman with an ego to match. He boasts that he can affect a man's reputation by the manner in which he chooses to draw his house or his wife. While her husband is away, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman, Antony and Cleopatra) commissions Mr. Neville to deliver 12 drawings of their estate in 12 days. "Your terms are exorbitant," he counters, "so must mine be." In addition to money, Mrs. Herbert reluctantly agrees to indulge Mr. Neville's sexual whims as payment for the drawings.
Sitting behind his drawing board and optical grid, Mr. Neville enjoys his ability to command members of the household and staff to vacate entire fields when he chooses. Occasionally, he trades barbs with Mr. Talmann, Mrs. Herbert's son-in-law, a pompous but slow German aristocrat. Despite his instructions for the staff to leave the landscape in a consistent condition, Mr. Neville begins to notice incongruent details in the scenes. Determined to draw the views exactly as he sees them, he incorporates the random items into his drawings: a pair of boots left on the hill, a nightshirt hanging from a bush, a ladder leading to a bedchamber. Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert, Picnic at Hanging Rock) also notices the discarded garments and asks Mr. Neville whether the series will eventually lead to the discovery of her father's body? Indeed, Mr. Herbert's corpse does turn up and the estate has suspects aplenty. Is Mr. Neville a witness or an accomplice to murder?
Peter Greenaway is a unique artist in the filmmaking world. A trained painter, he worked as a documentary editor before making a series of experimental short films and the epic-length mock documentary The Falls. Challenged by a British Film Institute producer to make a mainstream film, he created The Draughtsman's Contract as his first narrative feature. A critical success, the film firmly established his name in the European art-house film world.
I've always found The Draughtsman's Contract to be an intriguing, but cold, movie. On its surface, there are many elements that are quite easily enjoyed. The period-piece whodunit narrative works well; the stylized costumes—with exaggerated wigs that make the aristocrats look like demonic sheep—are fun to look at; and the music by Michael Nyman (The Piano) is lively and memorable. The script is full of wit and complex enough that I appreciate the optional English subtitles on this DVD release. Each carefully assembled shot seems stuffed with meaning. Sometimes the cinematography makes allusions to Renaissance paintings, other times it reveals sly visual puns—notice Mr. Neville's animalistic strut or his varying juxtaposition with the optical grid. Yet I felt that I wasn't fully getting it. There remained some elusive revelation that prevented me from fully embracing this movie. Thankfully, Greenaway provides a commentary track on this disc that enriches the movie for repeat viewings.
Using the scenes as starting points, Greenaway expounds on ideas that led to the creation of this story. His knowledge of English history is made clear when he explains the significance of the year in which he sets his story. The tension between Catholics and Protestants, the Dutch and German influences on English aristocratic society, the economic and legal issues of the day—all of these factors were relevant to his characters. It isn't necessary to know these historical details to appreciate Draughtsman's but it is fascinating to hear how much thought went into establishing a real context for this drama.
Greenaway doesn't beat around the bush or speak coyly about the intentions for a scene. He talks plainly about the meaning of individual moments, points out visual puns and explains the symbolic significance of various props. This is a director who doesn't hesitate to (quite literally) show his hand—he personally rendered the exquisitely detailed drawings of the house. Listening to Greenaway's commentary is like hearing a thorough lecture on a work of art. He doesn't explain everything but enough new information was brought to my attention that I feel like I can revisit the work again and make my own discoveries. What a relief that there is no exam to follow.
Starting with the anamorphic transfer created from restored Hi-Def elements, Zeitgeist Films' release of The Draughtsman's Contract is a big improvement over Fox Lorber's 1999 effort. Comparing the two discs, the new transfer loses a hair's width of the picture from the bottom of the frame but restores at least 5 percent of the image area on the right side. The video is also cleaner and much more stable, though not quite jitter-free. The nighttime and interior scenes display less contrast on the new transfer. Shadows are not as deep but more background detail can now be seen. Though grain is more noticeable in the darker scenes it doesn't reach levels of distraction. The exterior scenes have a notably warmer tone than before with richer saturation in the greens. Where outdoor scenes looked brightly overcast before, they now look spectacularly sunny. The picture does not have the sharp clarity we might expect on DVDs of recent movies, appearing slightly soft in some scenes, but it is reasonably detailed considering its age and source (originating on Super 16mm). Though the soundtrack is still in mono, on this DVD it has a stronger and deeper range than previously. Nyman's music is nicely featured and every word of the intricate script can be heard.
The audio commentary is definitely the bonus feature that Greenaway fans will enjoy the most, but this disc comes with a wealth of other extras. A 10-minute introduction to the movie manages to be much more interesting than simply a talking head. Four deleted scenes can be viewed but there isn't any additional information to elaborate on their context. The theatrical trailer is interesting for its use of alternate takes and shots not found in the finished movie. And if the commentary track makes Greenaway sound like an exacting, detail-oriented filmmaker, the behind-the-scenes footage confirms it by showing the director at work obsessing over compositional details. A six-minute clip of a British television interview with composer Michael Nyman is also included. Finally, essays by Greenaway and cinematographer Curtis Clark make up the liner notes. Clark writes about the technical ingenuity that allowed them to make Draughtsman's on such a small budget.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Greenaway is a very exacting filmmaker who controls every detail of his films. Perhaps that is why his actors are given little room to grow their characters. The cast puts in good work but they are essentially playing one-dimensional roles. Filmed almost entirely in wide-angle static shots, the actors are moved through scenes with precision like mannequins. The compositions are beautiful but the viewer is kept at a distance from the action. Seen in long shots only, any intimacy between the characters is lost and there is no connection between viewer and actor. Consequently, the last third of the movie suffers from a loss of momentum. As schemes are revealed, the lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes played out at a distance begin to test the viewer's patience.
Peter Greenaway is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker with a deliberate and recognizable style. Though not perfect, the restored transfer is a very good presentation of a key film in his career. Fans will really enjoy the extras on this disc because it is so refreshing to hear an artist who is willing to reveal the thought process behind his work. This disc will be an essential purchase for admirers of his work. Those viewers willing to try something new shouldn't hesitate to rent as the movie is quite accessible on its own merit.
For its improved transfer and good assortment of extras, Zeitgeist Films is cleared of all charges. Some time has passed but The Draughtsman's Contract is still legit. All parties are free to chase sheep over the rolling English hills.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio Commentary
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