The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

 “The space between knowing and seeing.”

draughtsmans-contractSet at the end of the 17th century, The Draughtsman’s Contract is a tale of lust, adultery and murder staged in the fantastic country estate of Compton-Anstey. Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions an arrogant draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to draw 12 views of her home over the period of 14 days. Mr. Herbert (Dave Hill), the owner of the house and Mrs. Herbert’s bored husband will be in Southampton for this period, and the drawings are to be a surprise and will, or so Mrs. Herbert argues, initiate a reconciliation between husband and wife. Mr. Neville at first declines the commission and then agrees, setting a contract of 8 pounds per drawing and insisting that Mrs. Herbert grant a certain period of time each day for his “pleasure.”

Mr. Neville has an obsession with order–particularly order in nature. He demands that the area he draws is perfectly prepared for his art. And while some of this can be achieved fairly easily, he also expects to harness the weather. But there is mischief afoot, and it is as if some imp is deliberately interjecting random chaos into each of his ordered landscape drawings. A stray item of clothing, a misplaced ladder–something seems to find its way into the landscape and thereby disrupts Neville’s desire for perfect order.

Mr. Neville, a guest in the house, and a man of lower social standing than his hosts, is a disruptive element. With his arrival, he demands order to conduct his art, but his presence in the house threatens chaos–husbands are cuckolded, an old lover usurped, and even the line of succession is questioned. In addition, Mr. Neville’s politics challenge prevailing opinion in the household. Mr. Neville’s sympathies are for the Scots, the Irish, the Catholics, and he despises Germans. With the protestant William of Orange on the throne, and the deposed Catholic King James II living in exile, these opinions are dangerous. Yet Mr. Neville is so arrogant, he fails to recognize reality.

While the social discourse between the characters remains at all times polite and delivered without a tempest of emotions, under the surface ugly emotions simmer. Reality vs. illusion is the film’s main theme, and unfortunately, when it comes to human conduct, Mr. Neville seems unable to distinguish between the two. On one hand, we have polite social discourse, but this frequently labyrinthine discourse–laden with double entendre–is a method of concealing real intentions. While the ambitious Mr. Neville prides himself on his intelligence, there is much he simply does not see. Just as Mr. Neville’s drawings are one dimensional representations of Compton-Anstey, the words exchanged by the polite company in Mrs. Herbert’s house are a mere illusion–representations of the truth. As always with Greenaway films, the resilient, deadly female of the species hold a great deal of the power, and just who is really in control here is deliciously revealed over the course of the film.

Writer and director Peter Greenaway creates notoriously difficult and illusive films–layered with meaning. In The Draughtsman’s Contract Greenaway, once again manages to perfectly recreate an age–replete with the period’s obsession with geometric design and perfect order. The Draughtsman’s Contract–like many of director Peter Greenaway’s films–is highly-stylized, and is essentially a series of elegant tableaux which so easily could be beautiful paintings that simply come to life when the camera rolls. Michael Nyman–Greenaway’s composer of choice creates a baroque score that perfectly matches the gorgeous scenery. My old VHS tape of The Draughtsman’s Contract was frustratingly dark in some scenes, but this issue was addressed in the DVD, and certainly made the purchase worthwhile.


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Filed under British, Greenaway

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