Peter Greenaway, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982)
British director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length feature film is a lovely feast for the eyes and ears, and the rest of the brain for that matter as it works on several levels: as an English country-house murder mystery, a subversion of social and political conventions and issues of the period in which it is set (the year 1694), a send-up of historical drama and an examination of what we see and assume is real versus the actual reality of what we fail to see. Brisk and business-like in pace with fixed-camera shots in which actors walk or run about often, the film makes maximum advantage of its garden and country settings to emphasise concerns of fertility and inheritance that underlie the intrigues leading up to and beyond the “murder” of the supposed head of the family. The plot is heavily dependent on dialogue which may require viewers to see the film at least two or three times to appreciate the double meanings of what various characters say to one another and to see layers of meaning in many shots and scenes.
A draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is commissioned by a wealthy lady, Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), to create 12 drawings of her house and gardens from different angles in 12 days. After persistent entreaty from Mrs Herbert, Mr Neville finally deigns to do so on terms he dictates – terms which include Mrs Herbert granting him sexual favours in secret while her husband is away on business, and the family taking its meals in the open air – and these terms are included in his contract. His work schedule is precise – he does sketches for all 12 drawings on the first day, then on each succeeding day elaborates on them further – and though he has given exacting instructions on what is to be included and to be left out for each scene on which each drawing is based, and he draws and details exactly what he sees, he discovers over time that the scenes change subtly: in one scene, a shirt in a tree changes position; in another, a statue changes position; in yet a third, various underclothes are strewn about. While not drawing, Mr Neville has his way with a reluctant Mrs Herbert regularly and becomes involved in the life of her household, in particular becoming chummy with Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talman (Anne-Louise Lambert) and arousing the jealousy and ire of her husband Mr Talman (Hugh Fraser). As the days pass the original contract is declared void. Mrs Talman suggests to Mr Neville that her father may have been murdered and offers the artist a contract of her own, and not long after their conversation the father Mr Herbert is found dead in a moat near an equestrian statue on the family property.
Mr Neville is a talented and successful but arrogant artist, sharp and crisp when he speaks, and his arrogance becomes his downfall as he appropriates Mr Herbert’s role as head of the household, only to be manipulated by Mrs Talman to service her sexual needs and being later disposed of by her jealous husband and his friends. Mrs Herbert initially appears fearful and downtrodden, and viewers might feel a bit sorry for her for allowing herself to be abused, but her victim status helps to lure Mr Neville into a scheme that ensures the Herberts’ property and wealth stay with Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talman’s descendants. Mr Neville believes his drawings reflect exactly what he sees and is mystified when Mr Talman sees evidence of sexual impropriety with his wife in the various works or when others examine them for clues to Mr Herbert’s murder and who may have killed him. The artist’s business-like approach to his work and everything he does – even his trysts with Mrs Herbert are conducted as cold-blooded business transactions (which they are so just who is the prostitute here?) – blinds him to hints within the drawings and the landscapes they depict of emotions and enmities that will bring him down.
The scheming that goes on in the Herbert household comments on the social relations of the period: Mr Neville, the son of a tenant farmer, tries to undermine the social hierarchy of his time in his own way, only for the aristocrats to put him in his place (an incommunicado one) and conveniently blame him for the murder of Mr Herbert; and the Herberts’ manipulations of Mr Neville imply that theirs is a corrupt class intent on using people for its own self-serving and materialist ends while preserving the appearance of innocence and propriety, symbolised by the white clothes and wigs of the Herberts and their household.
The actors are great to watch: their acting appears natural (apart from some scenes where actors may strike poses) in contrast to the hugely exaggerated costumes, wigs and make-up they often wear, and they are good-looking almost to the point of blandness: Lambert has a delicate, ethereal beauty that belies her character’s calculating nature and Higgins looks so po-faced that the barest emotion might crack his forehead. The diction is precise with a cut-glass edge: a necessary requirement as the dialogue includes complete sentences laden with puns, double meanings and references to classical Greek mythology which themselves have double meanings in the context of the film. Visual puns abound: naked male statues change positions, the equestrian statue sometimes loses its rider and the landscapes and buildings often look too perfectly picturesque and manicured. I suspect the English in the pre-industrial 1690’s were not greatly concerned with being punctual, neat and exact in their work. The water in the moat, still and lime-green, betrays no broken lines that might suggest something has fallen into it. Even the weather is unusually balmy and sunny.
Mention should be made of Michael Nyman’s musical score which is based on repeated motifs (what might be called riffs in some genres of rock and other popular music) by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell; performed by various musicians who included Alexander Balanescu (later to form the experimental chamber music group The Balanescu Quartet in 1987), the music can be very intrusive, appearing when least expected and not complementing anything happening at the time, and has an odd shrill reedy sound sometimes but its artificial and theatrical style suits the film.
The camerawork includes lovely idyllic country and garden scenes that could be tableaux with hidden secrets, layered with meanings that change over the course of the film; unfortunately the camera doesn’t linger long over such scenes but its abruptness is in keeping with the cracking pace that Mr Neville sets for himself at work and for everyone around him. The way in which scenes are filmed not only draws viewers’ attention to the lush vegetation, it also distances the characters from viewers and underlines their connections with their environment, emphasising again the Herberts’ attachment – nay, obsession – to their lands and the wealth represented in them.
Funny how even in such a painterly film as “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, money manages to rear its ugly head: this is appropriate as in 1694 England was well on the way to becoming the centre of an empire that had its origins in trade and the quest for wealth. The whiff of enterprise and commerce exists throughout the film, in the way Mr Neville whips everyone into action as soon as the ink on his contract dries, laying down the law as to how the Herberts and their retinue must comply with his requirements, and how he attempts to usurp the “natural” order in the ladies’ household. People appear oh-so-refined and cultured but the things they really value are money and property (which itself generates more money). With so many contrasts, contradictions and the many pairings of opposites, this film is dripping – maybe too much so – with meaning but it’s an enjoyable intellectual romp all the same. What we see is what we necessarily don’t get (or grasp) and the murder – if indeed, a murder did occur – is never solved.
(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)