The Draughtsman’s Contract

Year: 1982
Studio: BFI
Director: Peter Greenaway
Writer: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman

I've tried a few Peter Greenaway films over the years and have found them a very acquired taste. I knew about the reputation of this movie before I sat down to watch it but, like my recent first ever viewing of My Dinner With Andre, I got the feeling you have to be very much in the mood for it (which I wasn't).

We meet groups of 17th century types, all standing in small groups wearing elaborate wigs and pantaloons, whispering gossip about their neighbours and friends, all of them attending an evening party in some opulent mansion.

The family that owns the household, the Herberts, want the arrogant young draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) – one of the party's attendants – to draw a series of pictures of their grand country mansion for prosperity.

The gentleman of the house is cold and distant with his wife Virginia (Janet Suzman), and when he announces he's travelling to London for business and might be away several months, she seems to be insisting the Mr Neville that he carry out the assignment as if it's going to fill some void in her life.

Neville resits as long as he can but finally gives in, proceeding to order everyone in the house around to his exact requirements in order to produce the sketches.

But as well as putting all the household staff and visitors offside with his brusque manner, the clause Neville insists on including in the contract – that Mrs Herbert be available to satisfy him sexually – is the one that causes the most trouble as she wonders whether it was all worth it for her self respect.

At the same time, the Herberts' young married daughter engineers Neville to enter into a second contract with her whereupon he has to sexually service her too, married as she is to a man disinterested in her sexually and unlikely to get her pregnant.

It all comes to some sort of head when the master of the house – who may or may not have actually gone away on business after all– is found dead in a nearby waterway, perhaps murdered.

And right there was the point where I'd given it all I could manage and switched it off. It might have been partly because of the formal approach in every discipline. The script is all delivered in era-appropriate language, everyone speaking in very clipped, complete sentences like they're delivering sonnets even when their passions are rising, and everything from the pace to the camerawork is delicate, elegant and stiffly formal.

But I found myself wondering why I should possibly care about a talented artist using his skill to get laid and push people around. Motifs like the guy running around the lawns dressed as a statue give hints of deeper mysteries to be revealed, but they never go anywhere.

The problem I had with it is because Greenaway has never been interested in mere plot – evidently not even in cinema at all – hence the hesitation I've felt whenever I've approached his work. I once interviewed him for a newspaper article and he seemed to have retired from filmmaking altogether, having become obsessed with Second Life.

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