REVIEW: The Draughtsman’s Contract [1983]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: June 22nd, 1983 (UK)
Studio: British Film Institute / United Artists Classics
Director(s): Peter Greenaway
Writer(s): Peter Greenaway

“Four garments and a ladder do not lead us to a corpse”

It’s said Peter Greenaway‘s original cut of The Draughtman’s Contract came in at three hours before almost half the runtime was excised to deliver its theatrical form. I’m quite happy by this result because the lack of answers for its shadowy mysteries befits it. That’s not to say we cannot presume to know what’s occurred considering where each character ends up by its close, but to think the director actually gave answers is to imagine the fun ruined. With the level of ego and unearned machismo thrown about by the men involved, it’s a wonderful bit of reversal to discover the women may have been in control all along. A game originally believed to be of Mr. Neville’s (Anthony Higgins) construction soon revealing him as the pawn.

Yet we should at least begin fathoming this as the case since it’s Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) with help from her daughter Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) who persuades him to play in the first place. A young, witty, and bitingly sharp artist unafraid to speak his mind or put those dressed in finery—his black coat contrasting the elaborate white frocks worn by the rest—in their place, Neville’s a contradiction to the lifestyle cultivated on Mr. Herbert’s (Dave Hill) grand estate. He’s like a breath of fresh air in this way, an escape from the bloated pontificating and perpetual inaction of the men feigning control and ownership of what was historically the property of Mrs. Herbert’s family by point of fact. And he absolutely loves it.

Neville relishes this bad boy persona, shrugging off the Herbert women’s advances for his services in drawing the estate as a gift for their patriarch by explaining they couldn’t afford him due to the prospect of the project proving boring enough to ask for too much. What he didn’t anticipate was a stipulation in the contract overseen by a certain Mr. Noyes (Neil Cunningham)—of an intriguing relationship with the Herberts himself—stating he could do what he would to Mrs. Herbert once a day to his pleasure. Drawing twelve different views in return for free boarding, free food, eight pounds an artwork, and free reign over his employer’s body? That’s an agreement good enough to make his eyes and ours too big to see beyond the surface.

Add that after six drawings Mrs. Talmann decides to create her own contract—an hour a day to her pleasure in return for not floating a conspiracy theory about Neville hypothetically killing her father—and things have just begun to get wild. If any period drama wasn’t to be called “stuffy” The Draughtman’s Contract is surely it because of these crazy interjections of legally binding affairs and an eventual murder captivating beyond the painterly aesthetic of pomp and circumstance the genre craves. To see this estate in its grandeur either unfiltered or through the gridded drawing glass of Neville’s is to see beauty. To look past the façade, however, is to peer upon the carnal and opportunistic desires of a cunning and greedy people lusting for power.

Everyone plays his/her role perfectly within the ever-devolving repetition of days wherein each grows tired of complying with Neville’s stringent demands. We sense duplicity in those who are unaware of anything past their noses and uncertainty in those fully aware of their dastardly deeds. We construct scenarios about what’s actually happening, shrouding a truth lay bare—albeit abstractly—in shadows of our own making. We think we know the motivations at play and allow ourselves to feed into the characters created by the characters to trick us into trusting and mistrusting the exact wrong people. And all the while a living statue painted in soot (Michael Feast) mischievously cavorts about the grounds at once invisible and unmistakable, working towards an end of which I haven’t the faintest clue.

This last detail is possibly my favorite of the whole because it adds a farcical surrealism perfectly attuned to the twists and turns Greenaway provides. Who is he and does it really matter? Maybe. I don’t know. First he’s like a spectral vision, a Shakespearean trickster for our pleasure and not those onscreen. Next a child notices him while that child’s uncle remains oblivious. Then he moves a sculptured monument that should irk Neville’s exacting nature despite it never being mentioned. He urinates freely, makes a mess of the pristine garden, and at one point is smacked and chastised as though he’s merely a simpleton everyone has learned to ignore. And all I can conjure of his true purpose is that he’s been included to distract us, nothing more.

It works too because I was so enthralled by his role in the murder plot that I neglected to see the facts as presented—namely the attitudes and emotional states of the Herbert ladies and the lack of substance from Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser). Just as Neville is distracted by the nature of his work and the rules of his contract to complete it, I looked everywhere but where I should have from the beginning. Greenaway does a wonderful job hiding his secrets in plain site until the pieces begin to fall into place as supposed buffoons out to cover their own necks become mindless lemmings in a plan so intricate it began while the opening credits still unfolded. Everyone’s a potential suspect and scapegoat—everyone but Neville.

This is the film’s true brilliance because we know who couldn’t have committed the crime since every hour of his day is accounted for in the open or behind closed doors, pants at ankles. It’s therefore a puzzle to decipher what’s known and by whom. Who’s planting clues in Neville’s drawings? Who’s playing him for a fool by letting him fool himself with his own pride? And the blatant withholding of crucial key factors such as the selection of those twelve locales over others doesn’t seem withholding since we never thought they’d be important. It’s an expertly composed piece with an expertly dark end tied in a bow for two that’s worth countless revisits and welcome dissection. Although I’ll admit that initial ambiguity is part of the appeal.

courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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