The Draughtsman's Contract
THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT
Director: Peter Greenaway
Production: British Film Institute Production Board, in association with Channel 4; colour; 16mm; running time: 108 minutes. Released 1982.
Executive producer: Peter Sainsbury; producer: David Payne; screenplay: Peter Greenaway; assistant director: Andy Powell; photography: Curtis Clark; rostrum camera: Hugh Gordon; assistant photographer: Luke Cardiff; editor: John Wilson; assistant editor: John Taylor; sound editor: Doctor Lion; sound recordists: Godfrey Kirby, Martin Rex; sound re-recordist: Tony Anscombe; art director: Bob Ringwood; assistant designers: Jane Hamilton, Digby Howard; costumes: Sue Blane; music: Michael Nyman; music producer: David Cunningham.
Cast: Anthony Higgins (Mr. Neville); Janet Suzman (Mrs. Herbert); Anne Louise Lambert (Sarah Talmann); Neil Cunningham (Thomas Noyes); Hugh Fraser (Louis Talmann); Dave Hill (Mr. Herbert); David Gant (Mr. Seymour); David Meyer and Tony Meyer (The Poulencs); Nicolas Amer (Mr. Parkes); Suzan Crowley (Mrs. Pierpoint); Lynda Marchal (Mrs. Clement); Michael Feast (TheStatue); Alistair Cummings (Philip); Steve Ubels (Mr. van Hoyten); Ben Kirby (Augusta); Sylvia Rotter (Governess); Kate Doherty (Maid); Joss Buckley (Mr. Porringer); Mike Carter (Mr. Clarke); Vivienne Chandler (Laundress); Geoffrey Larder (Mr. Hammond); Harry van Engel and George Miller (Servants).
Greenaway, Peter, "Meurtre dans un jardin anglais," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 333, 1984.
Brown, Robert, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1981–82.
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Newman, B., and B. Evans, "Super 16 for The Draughtsman's Contract: An Interview with Curtis Clark," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), September 1983.
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Jaehne, K., "The Draughtsman's Contract: An Interview with Peter Greenaway," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 13, no. 2, 1984.
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Andrew, Geoff, "Contract Chiller," in Time Out (London), 18 May 1994.
Gras, V., "Dramatizing the Failure to Jump the Culture/Nature Gap: The Films of Peter Greenaway," in New Literary History, no. 1, 1995.
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* * *
The Draughtsman's Contract marks something of a caesura in the Greenaway oeuvre. For one thing it cost a great deal more than any of his previous films. His earlier British Film Institute projects, A Walk Through H and The Falls, came in at £7500 and £35,000 respectively. The production of The Draughtsman's Contract coincided with the BFI's decision to finance fewer but larger projects, and was budgeted at £120,000. However, the final budget was around £300,000, of which half came from Channel 4, here making one of its most spectacularly successful early investments in feature film production. Secondly, the film was the nearest that Greenaway had then come to a conventional feature. This is not to say that The Draughtsman's Contract is a conventional feature—far from it—but simply to note certain structural traits. For example, it is the first film in which Greenaway uses actors playing characters who speak to each other and are involved in various sets of relationships. It is also his first film to be set in a specific location in the known world. The film also develops a linear narrative, in which music plays the same kind of punctuating and expressive roles as in other, more straightforward, cinematic fictions. And thirdly, The Draughtsman's Contract marks the point at which Greenaway moved from being the maker of quirky, obsessive conceits to a major figure in international art house cinema with films such as A Zed and Two Noughts and The Belly of an Architect. The Draughtsman's Contract has been described as "an elaborate conspiracy thriller about class, sex and landscape, set at the feverish close of the 17th century." It tells the story of Mr. Neville, an ambitious young draughtsman, who, in 1694, is contracted by Mrs. Herbert for 12 drawings of her husband's country property at Compton Anstey. On arrival he soon becomes involved in the household's complex affairs, and is also perturbed to find that every time he begins a new drawing an item of the absent Mr. Herbert's clothing is stubbornly in view. Then Mr. Herbert is discovered dead, floating in the moat.
Greenaway's films, in which a formal concern with structures rubs shoulders with something decidedly more Romantic and even absurdist, have been described as revolving around the contradiction between "the encyclopaedic minutiae of a constructed world-in-microcosm and the aleatory perception of a contingent Nature," and The Draughtsman's Contract is no exception to this schema. In particular, the way in which the businesslike, dispassionate Mr. Neville is constantly intruded upon by human passions and their visible traces on the landscape testifies to the impossibility of purely abstract systems of any kind—systems of representation included. Indeed, even the landscape in which Compton Anstey is set, and which forms the background to the drawings, is far from being simply natural or neutral. As both Nikolaus Pevsner and W. G. Hoskins have repeatedly pointed out, the English landscape in particular always carries the traces of human activity upon it, and can thus be read as a kind of social and political map, as well as a simply geographical one. Neville's mistake is to fail to "read" the landscape in which he finds himself: narrowly limiting himself to what he can see in his viewing frame, to formal composition and to the formal terms of his contract, he fails to understand the relations of patronage and inheritance that are inscribed upon the landscape, or to see the signs of passion and intrigue which keep breaking through onto the otherwise orderly surface. This notion of landscape as something to be "read" becomes abundantly clear after Mr. Herbert's death, when the various members of the household scrutinise Neville's drawings for clues to the identity of the murderer.
It is its concern with landscape that, above all else, marks out The Draughtsman's Contract as a Peter Greenaway film. However, there is much else besides—the deliberately literary dialogue shot through with puns and conceits, the concern with visual symmetry (which results in a stylised, stilted mise-en-scène which is sometimes reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad), and Michael Nyman's not-quite-pastiche score, with its echoes of Purcell. It is less hermetic than his earlier films, less obsessed with purely structural matters and more concerned with telling a story. As usual the range of reference— cinematic and otherwise—is enormously wide (with Restoration comedy to the fore), but perhaps two of the strongest (and most unexpected) reference points are the costume drama and the country-house murder mystery, both of which add their curious resonances to this playful, idiosyncratic charade about the interconnections between representation, property, and sex in the England of William of Orange.