Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Draughtsman's Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982)

There’s a central mystery in Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, one that’s existence is only gradually revealed and with clues literally lying around; but whether this mystery need be solved is another question entirely. Beyond the mere twists and turns of the Restoration-era setting and plot lies Greenaway’s fascinating formality of images, archly elevated dialogue, and ultimate destruction of his character’s egotistic personality.

In the late 1600s, Neville (Anthony Higgins) is a draughtsman who agrees to make twelve drawings of the Herbert Estate for Virginia Herbert’s (Janet Suzman) absent husband. The trick in the contract involves various sexual payments by Mrs. Herbert. As the drawings are being constructed, Neville enters into a similar contract with Herbert’s married but loveless daughter (Anne-Louise Lambert). Neville begins noticing peculiarities with the layout of the estate and of miscellaneous objects being left outside. He becomes increasingly involved with the politics of the Herbert estate until Mr. Herbert himself turns up missing with Neville as a prime suspect.

Few characters I’ve encountered are as acerbically confident as Neville. He boasts of visual perfection, and the gall of establishing the contract in the first place is revealing. He seems especially to enjoy casual control over Mrs. Herbert, organizing their sexual rendezvous with little secrecy and much triviality. Anthony Higgins anchors the performance aspect of the film, delivering the funny but complex dialogue with panache and even at times, genial menace.

However, Greenaway is the one in control at all times. His eye for composition and the mostly static cinematography lends the film an exquisite, painterly beauty that goes against the period intrigue and dialogue. But this conflict only puts more focus on the scenery, especially in comparison to Neville’s drawings. A major motif is the use of a grid that allows the draughtsman to draw more easily. Neville thinks he can achieve perfection through his craft, in recording everything he sees in its proper place. This proves impossible; what he sees is (unbeknownst to him) damning, and he cannot separate his affair with Mrs. Herbert and the more artistic aspects of his contract. Greenaway is thus toying with his central character, just as the unfolding of the plot and lack of true resolution toy with the audience’s expectations. Apparently a three-hour version of The Draughtsman’s Contract exists, and it explains in depth the more puzzling and oblique plot points, characters, and scenes. But ultimately, the film needs an air of mystery to complement the director’s potent images and the ruin of his protagonist’s delusions of perfection.

IMDb page