screeened July 1, 2008 on Zeitgeist DVD in New York NY
Peter Greenaway launched into the vanguard of 80s Brit cinema with this BFI-funded arthouse landmark. Dressing an oblique murder mystery-cum political allegory narrative with gorgeous cinematography, elaborate declamatory wordplay and costumed sexual naughtiness, the film packages numerous art cinema conventions with a sumptuous obliqueness that almost guarantees repeat visits to puzzle over it the more. The film is most notable for its ambivalent treatment of its protagonist Neville, a painter commissioned by a landowner’s wife to create drawings of the estate (though it’s really an excuse for her to sleep with him). Artist, charlatan, lothario and subversive, Neville embodies several variations of the arthouse film iconoclast hero at once, and yet Greenaway repeatedly undermines his heroic qualities to reveal him as a pawn in the larger game being played. The film owes much to 1960s puzzlers like Blow Up or Last Year in Marienbad, while distinguishing itself through an impeccable tableaux of painterly flatness (concealing layers of intrigue) and a flippancy towards its subjects that reveals the juvenile disposition of the characters, or the director, or both.
Want to go deeper?
The opening sequence, found on YouTube:
British writer-director Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film is entertaining as an avant-garde exercise cleverly adapted to commercial ends. In 17th-century England a landscape artist makes an agreement with the wife of a wealthy landowner to trade his work for her sexual favors. All goes well until mysterious objects begin to clutter the grounds (and the artist’s sketches), pointing to a sinister plot. Greenaway’s structuralist pedigree is evident in his elaborate visual plan, which puts both artist and audience at the mercy of incomprehensible images. Yet the film’s mass appeal is located in its dry and tony pseudo-Restoration dialogue, which skirts the sexual issues with a fashionable callousness.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
What we have here is a tantalizing puzzle, wrapped in eroticism and presented with the utmost elegance. I have never seen a film quite like it. THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT seems to be telling us a very simple story in a very straightforward way, but after it’s over you may need hours of discussion with your friends before you can be sure (if even then) exactly what happened.
All of the characters speak in complete, elegant, literary sentences. All of the camera strategies are formal and mannered. The movie advances with the grace and precision of a well-behaved novel. There is even a moment, perhaps, when we grow restless at the film’s deliberate pace. But then, if we are sharp, we begin to realize that strange things are happening under our very noses.
The raw materials of this story could have been fashioned into a bawdy romp like TOM JONES. But the director, Peter Greenaway, has made a canny choice. Instead of showing us everything, and explaining everything, he gives us the clues and allows us to draw our own conclusions. His movie is like a crossword puzzle for the senses.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
A cinematic control freak on par with Stanley Kubrick (and twice as misanthropic), Peter Greenaway specializes in art films that give both words of that label equal weight. Trained as a painter, the director is obsessed with formal symmetry; combined with his love of intellectual gamesmanship, he gives the appearance of making work for aesthetes and chess masters. But as his early features prove, there’s a fascinating madness behind Greenaway’s methodical hermeticism and no shortage of true brilliance.
His breakthrough, 1982’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, gives every indication of being a risqué Restoration comedy. A landscape artist (Higgins) is hired to do 12 portraits of an aristocratic estate, with payment being the carnal attention of the owner’s wife (Suzman). Then odd inconsistencies start showing up in the drawings, and viewers expecting a bedroom farce suddenly find themselves wading through a 17th-century version of Blowup. Civility, it seems, is the most dangerous of facades.
- David Fear, Time Out New York
Critical quotes taken from PeterGreenaway.org.uk:
“Greenaway’s 17th century is a place of ribald honesty as well as unfathomable mystery, and it revels in the spoken word. Of course this is non-genre, low-budget cinema, and some people will be irritated by its singlemindedness; but for others it’s proof that wit can sometimes carry a film to places special effects just don’t reach.” – David Pirie, Time Out
“The film is mannered and idiosyncratic; the speeches are so arch and twitty they seem to be pitched higher than a dog whistle, and the people talking are popinjays in perukes shaped as geometrically as the shrubs at Marienbad.” – Pauline Kael
“Best enjoyed as a sly piece of double bluff, a puzzle without a solution, an avant-garde hoax in the spirit of Dada and the surrealists.” – Observer
“Astonishingly elegant… extraordinarily detailed… mind-bendingly rich. The Draughtsman’s Contract is fun.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times
Having produced a number of documentary-influenced works for the BFI, Greenaway was prompted by the then Head of Production Peter Sainsbury to undertake what is perhaps the ultimate experiment for the experimental filmmaker, namely to partake in the devices of the mainstream. This meant, in response to Greenaway’s work at the time, to adopt something of a true narrative drive or, to put it simply, a story. And it’s an undertaking which prompts a question or two. Should The Draughtsman’s Contract therefore be viewed, and judged, merely on narrative terms? (In the manner of say a John Wayne Western made for Republic circa 1934, films which offered nothing beyond their storylines.) And if so, does it then fail if it operates on any other level beyond these terms?
The Draughtsman’s Contract is the most important of all of Greenaway’s work inasmuch as it serves as a bridge between the earlier career as an experimental filmmaker and the later one as an internationally established arthouse director. As such it is perhaps unsurprising that it should both look forwards and backwards to other entries in his filmography. The scenes which unfold below the credits, for example, possess a stylistic approach which is reminiscent of that from Vertical Features Remake, albeit with human participants, and also contain snatches of oddly humorous yet unconnected snatches of dialogue as per Dear Phone. Indeed, these very moments signify the very bridge between the two careers as these pieces of dialogue set up themes which would continue to concern the director in every film he has made since. Infidelity (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), peculiar sexual relationships (8½ Women), the role of women in society (The Pillow Book), the relationship between sex and death (A Zed & Two Noughts) and, of course, the contract itself (The Belly of an Architect) all gain a mention. Indeed, they produce another list for an oeuvre typified by them (and then we could even add this further with the little throwaway moments such as a child recounting the alphabet, as seen elsewhere in H is for House and A Zed & Two Noughts).
Indeed, it would appear that Greenaway is adamant that his audience doesn’t become wholly (or solely) consumed by the plotline. Throughout he adopts an approach which either enhances or accentuates The Draughtsman’s Contract’s constituent elements. There is an air of theatricality as well as a painterly edge: costumes are a little too exaggerated so that their inherent flamboyance becomes dominant; the dialogue is infused with an overly decorative verbosity; and the camera set-ups are almost exclusively made up of medium shots, held for long durations, and focus on symmetries and unusual framing. Even Nyman’s score – the trailer’s big selling point – is employed in an unconventional manner. Its function would appear to be almost entirely decorative as it neither underlines nor punctuates any of the dramatic tension. Indeed, The Draughtsman’s Contract can be seen as a film without true dramatic resolve; all of the elements are there, yet Greenaway never provides us with an easily digestible explanation at the film’s close – rather we must pick up the pieces as we go along and form our own picture.
Of course, what this means is that The Draughtsman’s Contract can seem overbearing on an initial viewing. Yet surely this also points up Greenaway’s success inasmuch as the sheer density of the film invites repeated viewings. Certainly, it may be the case that not everyone will pick up every tiny nuance over time (the political machinations are likely to be obscure to the vast majority), but the amount of layers mean that it is continually rewarding nonetheless. To my mind Greenaway has gone on to produce superior works since (A Zed & Two Noughts being a particular favourite) but almost 25 years later this still stands as a fine example of British cinema.
- Anthony Nield, DVD Times
The film’s 17th century setting allows the exploration of the social and political structures of the time; the Married Women’s Property Act hovers in the background. Indeed, despite the male ownership of both property and women, and despite some appearances to the contrary, it is the women of the film who consistently hold the upper hand, using sex and other ruses to control men and pursue their broader desires. The relationship between these ideas is explored in later Greenaway films, perhaps most explicitly in Drowning by Numbers (1984).
The formalised 17th century language of the film also allies well with Greenaway’s own highly formalised language, and is frequently built around suggestion, at times becoming highly sexualised. This ambiguity and detachment in conversation has led some critics to refer to the film as a science fiction – possibly allied with the earlier Water Wrackets (1978).
It is an intensely detailed but coherent world that the film conjures, but despite the draughtsman’s professed pursuit of objectivity – “I do not disguise or disassemble” – it is a made world, and one open to interpretation. Trees are subjected to grafting, the landscape to flooding, and all this is layered again through interpretation; witness another draughtsman, in the form of a Dutch child, and the very different drawing that he produces. Regardless of this, the act of witness is held to be paramount – due to all he has seen, the social climbing draughtsman, Mr. Neville, must be disposed of, beginning with his eyes.
William Fowler, Screen Online
In time, the most stratospherically falutin’ avant-garde becomes nostalgic, even quaint. Peter Greenaway’s first two major films now seem distanced, theatrical commentaries on the class war. The struggle may be the same, but the crisp diction is a reminder of the barbaric riches of the 1980s. Almost simultaneously, Godard was making Passion. In the Godard, we see a similar attraction and repulsion to classical art and the rich who were privileged to gaze at it. But Godard is a voluptuary. Greenaway’s nudes are animals who have been plucked or skinned of their clothes. Bits of English history, such as the death of William III, and the fruitless multiple pregnancies of Queen Anne, are like half-heard conversation in the background. Modern concerns of filthy lucre, property and snobbery burn through this film. Arch and diffident as it is, The Draughtsman’s Contract sucks you through in its pomp, its circumstances and its S&M-flavored sex. We watch Mr. Neville, for instance, using a pair of shears to cut the laces of a lady’s corset, like a man shelling a lobster… It’s hard to forget Pauline Kael’s comment on Draughtsman’s Contract: “Pitched higher than a dog whistle.” In his own phylum as a filmmaker, Greenaway seems to descend from Cocteau and Ken Russell; his lineage leads to today’s dog-whistle virtuoso Matthew Barney.
- Richard von Busack, Metroactive
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.
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.
—Sylvia Paskin, Film Reference.com
Though he is described snidely as a materialist, the Draughtsman, Neville (played by Anthony Higgins), is an idealist. He prides himself on being able to draw something exactly as it appears. Just like a camera, his drawings supposedly re-create what exists, without interpretation or expression. His understanding of drawing techniques and systems makes him confident of this.Yet in Greenaway’s world, systems or codes of any kind are treated as inadequate, hopelessly subjective fantasies that deserve contempt, not respect. Categorical thinking claims it makes the world easier to understand; Greenaway maintains it distorts the world by forcing it into unnatural categories.
Neville is doomed from the start – not only by his avarice but also by the internal contradictions of the idealism he represents. An idealist in a world created by a relativist can only prepare himself for tragedy.In The Draughtsman’s Contract, we are given both – the landscape and its representation – but in circumstances that make the distinction between the two ambiguous. While the plot constantly reminds us of what is left in and what is left out of the drawings, the self-reflexive style of the film (Marxist New Wave meets historical drama – the most aristocratic genre of them all) constantly reminds the viewer of the similar processes at work in the film itself.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is still the best introduction to Greenaway’s work. It articulates the themes that dominated his films from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and its minimal formal devices anticipate the changes that were to occur in Darwin (1992) and Prospero’s Books (1991). Speaking recently, he said “It would be impossible for me to make The Draughtsman’s Contract now. My interests would be very different, so much so that, at last, after long resistance, I am negotiating for an American company to remake it.” One wonders why someone who speaks with such vehemence of the sentimental laziness of American movies would permit them to remake one of his own. The film, by Hollywood standards, is unsatisfying: the murderers are never revealed; conflicts aren’t resolved. One suspects somebody as keen on interdisciplinary permutations as Greenaway would be curious about what such a remake would reveal about his own work. He proudly slides from medium to medium, self reference to external reference, with the same set of issues and themes: he doesn’t make definitive statements on one subject, and then move onto another, but rather repeats variations upon the same subjects and allows the differing ideas that result to accumulate. For someone who operates like this, a remake could be seen as another variation, and thus an extension, of their own work – one that, unlike their own work, can be conveniently disowned if ruined in the process.
- James Mackenzie, Senses of Cinema
So here we have a Baroque Blow-Up, and one that happens to deal with subjects that orbit my own range of interests: political intrigue (on a small scale), coded images and signs, the consideration of an historical ‘visual regime.’ But I imagine that a film with these attractive totems could still disinterest me, even repulse me; why did this film (on this viewing at least) win me over, bring me in? The tableau presentation, with its occasional flatness and frontality (or, extended into a long space, its ‘High Renaissance’ perspectivalism) was very admirable in its sheer forthrightness; what I mean by ‘forthrightness’ is that Greenaway seems to want to provide us with thought-provoking images, images upon which we reflect (and simply for their conceptual content), but he makes little effort to make the image itself attractive, ‘enveloping,’ intriguing to the emotions as well as the eye. If I can anthropomorphize a little here, they’re the sort of images that, if you met them walking down the street, would intensely invite you to coffee and rigorous philosophical conversation rather than to alcoholic revelry and a roll in the hay.
- Zach Campbell, Elusive Lucidity
In this first cinematic offering from this unashamedly art-minded director, he had not yet begun his collaboration with maestro director of photography Sacha Vierny. Draughtsman’s Contract lacks the distinctive color palette of his later work, where the lighting is reminiscent of his favorite painters (Vermeer and Rembrandt). Devotees of Greenaway’s body of work shouldn’t expect the sumptuous visual style of his later films (starting with his next picture, A Zed & Two Noughts). Newcomers, on the other hand, should ponder whether to go for this more humble offering or to dive into the deep end with Greenaway’s more esoteric, more stylized, and in my estimation, more fascinating later work. The Draughtsman’s Contract is a first, fledgling attempt at what he later perfected, but that modesty could be seen as a virtue, since there is indeed some form of narrative here instead of the nonlinear, compulsive list-making and categorization that drives some people crazy about his other films. There is, indeed, a story and a mystery here that prevents Greenaway from indulging in his sometimes alienating proclivities. But what seems like a game is actually a trap: The story marches forward like a death march and is resolved with merciless efficiency.
- Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine
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.
Like Greenaway’s eventual breakthrough, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, Contract is sordid and gorgeous at the same time; its elaborate costumes and coifs and its beautiful landscapes stand in marked contrast to the characters’ blunt brutality. But the costumes match up with the leaden, ultra-formal execution, which revolves around the planning, structuring, and creation of each of Higgins’ drawings in turn, as well as the sexual act that accompanies it. Contract often feels like an inexact bridge between Greenaway’s experimental films and his narrative period: The mysterious man posing naked in the garden, pretending to be a statue, feels as much like a symbol of the film’s rigid, chilly artifices as he does like part of the story.
- Tasha Robinson, The Onion AV Club
Jeffrey M. Anderson: “Peter Greenaway’s second feature, after the epic experimental film The Falls (1980), finds a satisfying balance between narrative and Greenaway’s peculiar vision, and finishes as one of his best and most entertaining films”
Rachel Balik, The Brooklyn Rail
William Lee for DVD Verdict
Debi Lee Mandel, Digitally Obsessed
About the Zeitgeist DVD
January 08′: Zeitgeist have attempted some improving work here, although my suspicion is that it is actually from BFI’s archives 4 years earlier. The Draughtsman’s Contract was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. The 35mm print was transferred to High Definition D5. The new digital master was then restored. There appears to be no uniformity between the two anamorphic releases; BFI and the Zeitgeist. At times the BFI colors look superior but appears somewhat saturated and in other scenes the Zeitgeist has those issues with some boosted brightness. I don’t think I can conclude too much on which is the better release based on those criteria, but I do have a few things to say about the new Zeitgeist release.
1) It appears to be interlaced and has some visible combing.
2) The correct aspect ratio of the film is 1.66:1 (as both BFI and F/L are) but the Zeitgeist is reporting a ratio of about 1.73:1. Not a biggie – it shows marginal more information on both edges.
3) It has the exact same supplements as the BFI from 4 years ago.
4) The Zeitgeist is in the correct standard (it has been properly converted).
5) It offers no French DUB (where the BFI does.)
The presentation of this film isn’t going to vary much due to its pragmatic production intentions (16mm, candlelight etc.) and the combing on the Zeitgeist is very fine and shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance. Saying that – one should prepare that no matter which release you purchase it will not resemble a modern film transfer to SD. I doubt it could improve extensively if it was put to Blu-ray. This is the way the film looks and it’s nice to have a superior NTSC offering that easily eclipses the old Fox/Lorber. I enjoyed the Zeitgeist extras… that are actually duplicated from the BFI of 4 years ago. North American Greenaway fans should be fairly happy with this new, slight cheaper than the old PAL, edition.
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
Thanks to the close participation of Greenaway in the restoration and packaging of his work, Zeitgeist delivers a truly amazing DVD. Beginning with a 10 minute intro from the man that covers most of the film’s production history, to a full length audio commentary that highlights the different social structures and 17th century rules addressed, the director is a brilliant guide through his frequently frustrating work. Thanks to the context he provides, and the behind the scenes stories he tells, The Draughtsman’s Contract becomes even more mesmerizing and multifaceted. The rest of the added content is equally enlightening. There are deleted scenes (very insightful), a glimpse backstage, including interviews from ’82 with Higgins and costar Janet Suzman, trailers, stills, a demonstration on how the film was restored, and essays by the director and his cinematographer, Curtis Clark. Like all good digital bonus features, the material offered here truly supplements the main feature, and gives us a greater ability to appreciate what Greenaway created.
- Bill Gibron, DVD Talk
Peter Greenaway has written the sleeve notes, delivers a ten-minute filmed introduction to the film, and gives his voice to the first-class audio commentary, in which, instead of dissecting the film scene by scene, he provides a charming and erudite account of the historical context and theoretical underpinnings of the film, taking in inheritance law changes under William and Mary, the evolution of wigs, state-of-the-art candle lighting, the differences between television and cinema – as well as pointing out that a four-piece delft tea set borrowed for one of the final scenes had been valued by insurers as worth over ten times the entire film’s budget.
About Peter Greenaway
Screen Online biography
The thing that bothers me about Peter Greenaway is not actually his work (of which I’m mostly ignorant) but the discourse–the rhetoric–which surrounds it. Recently reading some appreciative articles, interviews, and reviews about this filmmaker (I mean, artist) almost caused me to strain my eyes from rolling them so much. Writers do much hemming & hawing about how Greenaway “rejects” this or that conception of narrative in favor of ‘sequence’ (or ‘spatiality’), that his films are singular challenges to cinema’s (presumably previously essential) conventions of identification and empathy. Greenaway himself seems to buy into this image, even feeds it: apparently the cinema has run its course, the idea of cinema-as-storytelling has been discarded by Godard (but apparently not before…), and we’re all starving for a truly radical departure–and innovation–in cinema.
What bothers me about all this running-off-at-the-mouth is that it poses as a high-cultural stance but it betrays a profound ignorance of the history of the cinema (and by extension the history of global twentieth century cultures, and the history of art). One suspects that Godard is about as radical and obscure a figure as Greenaway is acquainted with in the cinema: for him the avant-garde exists in painting, but apparently has only a few quick, scattershot appearances in the medium of film. But Greenaway is not the first nor the tenth to challenge the things he supposedly challenges; I doubt he’s either the best or the tenth best to do it. (My temptation here is to imagine Ruiz dressed up as Annie Oakley singing to Greenaway, “Anything you can do I can do better…”)
The cinema is full of films that “challenge narrativity” (from Cornell’s Rose Hobart to Meyer’s Supervixens) or ignore it altogether (from Garrel’s Les Hautes solitudes to Sonbert’s Carriage Trade). There are plenty of films that draw upon a rich cultural history of ideas to create conceptually sophisticated and deeply intellectual work with no compromises for the industry: the films of Harun Farocki, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Straubs, Derek Jarman, Robert Bresson, Glauber Rocha, Chris Marker. The ostensible profundity of Greenaway’s conception of cinema comes, I think, from an awful “greatest hits” approach to cinema, whereby (1) it is conceived as essentially, basically, and ultimately a commercial machine used to the ends of die Kulturindustrie, and (2) those rare films which challenge this notion are always those films which have at least one foot squarely in it–because any cinema that isn’t part of “the movies” is blissfully ignored by someone like Greenaway, who needs to uphold this image of a reactionary industry to stand in for the entirety of the medium so that he and a few other lone geniuses (Eisenstein, Lynch, Godard, Welles, Fellini) can do their allegedly progressive film-art on “symbol and metaphor.” He will compare the development of music or painting over our period of modernity to that of cinema, and wonders why cinema comes up lacking–but that’s because he isn’t pitting the run-of-the-mill Hollywood hit of 1952 with a Norman Rockwell painting, and he isn’t pitting de Kooning with, say, Brakhage. He’s comparing the run-of-the-mill Hollywood film with the avant-garde coterie of the art world as though they are the representative equivalents of their given media.
- Zach Campbell, Elusive Lucidity
Greenaway’s introduction to The Draughtsman’s contract, on the BFI website:
I had for a long time resisted the idea of the classic European art movie, which, as I saw it then, was too much related to the business of writing literary scripts, processing narrative in predictable formulaic terms, narrowing down the filmic vocabulary, and obeying all the orthodox narrative verities, but I was persuaded, indeed challenged, to create a film world where the characters no longer talked directly into the microphone and the camera, as in the earlier film-essays, but to one other. The result was The Draughtsman’s Contract. In a way I had not reneged on previous preoccupations. Here was formalism of another kind, using the stiffness and theatricality and artificiality of Restoration drama, using elaborated spoken texts that often, but never completely, threaten to defy comprehension because of their extended conceits and indulgent word-play, and using music that always announces its self-conscious presence as though it was a concert piece existing on its own terms and not merely fulfilling the obligations of illustrative film-musak.
In a way The Draughtsman’s Contract was Vertical Features Remake with actors. And with its excessive straight-jacketing of the English landscape, it was another catalogue movie, but this time with actors walking the world, but actors deliberately behaving like statutes or mannequins, marshalled into a strict regime of times and places. The time is 1694, the subject is a conspiracy of murder, more Patricia Highsmith then Agatha Christie, the characters are effete provincial aristocrats, the ambience bitter and sweet. Sexual exploitation is paramount. A draughtsman demands sexual favours in return for practising his art on a country-house; a contract for twelve imaginative couplings with the mistress of the house for twelve prosaic drawings, both to be taken at his predatory pleasure and with an eye to his rigid timing. We believe the draughtsman is in control and we watch his progress of gross sexual exploitation with some respect, for he is an unapologetic immoralist, he is handsome, well turned out, a disadvantaged outsider trying to get inside, and an artist of some talent if not a huge imagination. But the movie takes a reverse turn half way through and the predator becomes the victim, quite how and why, if not already guessed in a plot of women holding onto hereditary in a household of virtual eunuchs, is quickened in the last minutes with the freely commissioned thirteenth drawing and the thirteenth copulation. The artist is not employed afterall to draw but to sire. His prowess as a stud is more understood and valued that his prowess as draughtsman.
It is a movie of Catholics and Protestants, interiors and exteriors, manners and snobbisms, insiders and outsiders, and the various manipulative equations of sex and money and power and art, played in an almost colour-coded idealised English Wiltshire landscape of white, black and green. It is of course a fiction, but 1694 was the year of the first Married Woman’s Property Act, the formation of the bank of England and the year of William of Orange’s Protestant consolidation of anti-Stuart Catholic Whiggery, a few short years after the Battle of the Boyne. The world in England had changed. Modern history begins. But, entertaining, and hopefully as educative as this might be, it is all really an elaboration of the film’s original premise which is – should an artist draw what he sees or draw what he knows? Sight and knowledge are not at all the same thing. Seeing and believing. Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see. The eye is lazier than the brain. Because of such contradictions and inadequacies, the draughtsman is framed, and in both meanings of that phrase. And because of the film’s ubiquitous optical-device, a frame on an easel, and because of the obsessive framings of the movie-camera itself in making the film, we are framed too. And we know that cinema itself is a framing device in both meanings of the word.
Perhaps with profit the argument that seeing and knowing are not the same thing, should be always applied to cinema. And in the end The Draughtsman’s Contract perhaps ought to be called The Filmmaker’s Contract. What is the profit to a filmmaker, if he only films what he sees and not what he, and also his audience, undoubtedly know?
Greenaway in his own words, also from the BFI website:
On Painting and film
Painting does not characteristically embrace music, though I do remember a Rauchenberg painting that had built-in transistor radios. And painting does not, other than manipulating a few visual symbols treating text essentially as image, on the whole deal in texts, though it might readily illustrate them. And painting does not embrace sequence-through-time, unless that time is very long and the painting begins to decay. And these things – music, text and temporality – I confess, I had as much interest in, as making painted images. So the cinematic vocabulary was attractive to me, since, in theory at least, it seemed to be able to contain all these characteristics. But the prime agenda had always to be the manufacture of the image, and that meant, for me, that the processes I wanted to deal with, utilised the thought, practices and aesthetics of painting rather than of cinema. And still does. I feel happier talking about cinema through the experience of five thousand years of Western painting, than I do considering it through some 100 years of cinema critique. Painting after all will stay, and the local aesthetics of cinema will fade, are indeed already fading, since the media is so dependent on its technology, and cinema technology is fading fast.
So, the vocabulary of carefully constructed largely-static images (the maps in A Walk Through H are essentially small paintings), the traditions of English landscape painting, (Windows, H is for House, Vertical Features Remake), the mid-twentieth century habit of serial painting, (Intervals, Dear Phone, Vertical Feature Remake), the acknowledgement of the screen as a screen and not a see-through window on the world, (Dear Phone) and the numerous conceits, visual puns and provocative self-conscious, non-illusionistic devices which are so contrary to the cinema of illusion we have ended up with after 108 years, take their cue and reference from painting familiarities which have preceded the local technology of cinema by more than five thousand years, and will, without a doubt, persist long long after it.
On Artistic influences and the COI
In the mid-sixties and early seventies the current painterly interests were Land Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism. My fascinations within this local contemporary cultural baggage journeyed around the work of Richard Long, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, Frank Stella, R.B. Kitaj, and, as with everyone else, Marcel Duchamp, and their visual overspill into a cinema language somewhere between and including Hollis Frampton and Alain Resnais. I took what I wanted from these influences, aided by the literary experiments of Borges and all the acolytes (and precursors) of Magic Realism, and all the musical experiments of Cage and all his acolytes (not so many precursors), and certainly the direct-use of landscape materials, maps, diagrams, photographic recording, stripped down list-making, the economic cataloguing, the excitements of mock equivocal theorising, and personal desires to make limitless dictionaries and directories, but always being aware of using the boundaries of those systems to indicate their short-comings.
Behind all this, I was anti-narrative in picture-making, and therefore in cinema (if you want to tell stories be a novelist). I was not so smitten with the exhibitionism and presumption of actors who are trained to behave that they are not being watched, and there had to be a very very good reason indeed to move a camera; paintings did not move, why should a film-frame? If these ideas covered some of the intellectual ambitions, then the practical limitations were no less stringent and certainly even more constricting. Not at all surprisingly, these films were primitively manufactured, with very low budgets.
With the exception of A Walk through H, Vertical Features Remake and The Falls, they were all self-financed from a salary as a documentary film editor working in the broom-cupboard cutting-rooms of Soho, London, for various now long-vanished film companies, but including Thames Television, the BBC and most significantly the COI, the Central Office of Information, whose name at least, I wish I had invented. There is a name that covers everything in the world with authority. Its methods were to employ an understanding (or misunderstanding) of the world through statistics, unbounded naive optimism – ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, and propaganda techniques inherited from its war-time predecessor, the Crown Film Unit; and it had an accredited audience of at least a sixth of the world’s population
For a time, I had access to the British Film Institute Film Library and a key to their projector-rooms. Over two years of night-time viewing, I crash-coursed in world cinema history, mostly with obscure films that few people had heard of, and came to realise that big money, impressive net-working and a union card, in any combination, was never a guarantee of quality, excitement, and certainly not cinematic intelligence. It was both very dispiriting – where was all the image sophistication and image intelligence I had so easily experienced in the world of painting – but also encouraging, for in such a world it might not be so impossible to make some sort of a contribution. Variously, with naive optimism, but also with trepidation because where were the models I could use to legitimise what I wanted to do, I started making films.
Truffaut and the catalogue movie
Truffaut once said that a film-maker always gives himself away with his first film, and my early films certainly set up all the leitmotivs, recipes, agendas, obsessions and fascinations of all the subsequent years of film-making. Certainly here are the beginnings of a singular characteristic trope – the catalogue movie. Most of the subsequent movie-making for me is structured around a list or a catalogue – where the items or events or ideas are approached, ticked off and moved on – using narrative if necessary, using chronological time if necessary, but always essentially fulfilling the obligations of completing a list that is introduced in some form of originating prologue, with the unspoken but clear declaration that what you are about to see is more of the condition of how than what. Here too, in embryonic form, are the birds and the flying and the water, casual death, the neutrality of Nature, the numbering, the listing, the equivocations of statistical information, the melodramas defused by irony, the mockery of dogma and the absence of consolation for life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the equivocal humour, the disrespect for cinema narrative and the contempt for cinema manipulation, and the persistent aura of ‘passionate detachment’ that perhaps has always been more the way painting operates its relationships with a viewer, than the traditional way that cinema manoeuvres its audience.
Highlights from Interview with Curtis Clark, ASC, Cinematographer of The Draughtsman’s Contract:
QUESTION: How did you get the opportunity to shoot The Draughtsman’s Contract?
CLARK: I was looking into the possibilities of shooting documentaries in Super 16 format. It is a more robust format than standard 16 mm film because it uses the edges of the frame to get a larger image area and a wider aspect ratio. A main limitation was that there weren’t any film labs committed to processing both the film and making optical blow-ups to 35 mm format. I believed that it was important to have the consistency of working under one facility’s roof. At that time, I was doing a lot of documentary work at a lab where Paul Collard worked. He became the technical manager for Kay Labs. It was a major independent lab. Paul was intrigued with the possibilities of providing Super 16 film lab services from processing through the optical blow-up. The introduction of the Aaton LTR Super 16 camera was a catalyst. Prior to that, you had to modify the (Éclair) NPR 16 mm camera in order to shoot films in Super 16 format. Kay Labs invested in designing and testing the equipment needed for making 35 mm optical blow-ups from films produced in Super 16 format. They tested the use of color reversal internegative (CRI). I recall that everyone was very nervous about that because it was difficult for labs to maintain consistent quality control. CRI was a very complex process but it enabled you to get some remarkable results. I met Peter Greenaway at the British Film Institute around that time. He was intrigued by my experiments with Super 16 film.
QUESTION: At what point did the two of you consider shooting in Super 16 format?
CLARK: Right from the start, I thought that there were potential major advantages in making the Super 16 format work for The Draughtsman’s Contract. Peter really wanted to make it look like we shot in daylight and candlelight. That presented serious challenges concerning the need to record considerable depth of field while shooting at low light levels. He also envisioned tableau scenes that emulated the feeling of a Caravaggio painting. Peter didn’t want a hint of light that didn’t look like it was generated by the sun, candles and oil lamps. I knew that was going to be a challenge. The color negative film we used was rated for 100-speed in tungsten light, and it didn’t offer much depth of field. It was also unforgiving. If you underexposed it, you got grain. I knew we would never be able to shoot everything in candlelight, but I had to find ways to create that illusion. That is when I began thinking that the Super 16 format could help give us an edge in getting the depth of field that Peter wanted.
QUESTION: Was any consideration given to shooting in black and white?
CLARK: There were films being produced in black-and-white format in 1982, but this story demanded color. Our visual references for The Draughtsman’s Contract were paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Renaissance artists. We felt that it was essential for our images to have that painterly quality. The tableaus and compositions that we used were critical to the aesthetic that Peter wanted to pursue. It had to be color but it was a limited palette. Just because you produce a film in color doesn’t mean that it has to be colorful. We shot night scenes largely in flickering candlelight. There was just a little supplemental lighting from small tungsten lamps. Each lamp had a dimmer control, which allowed us to match the exact color temperature of the candlelight. That was the aesthetic Peter wanted but the color temperature of candlelight is extremely warm. When it reflected off of normal flesh tones it created a reddish or ruddy look that wasn’t possible to control with traditional color grading at a film lab.
QUESTION: What did you do?
CLARK: We experimented with using makeup to deal with the reddish flesh tones that we got when exposing images in candlelight. We found a white makeup that worked with the flesh tones of our actors. That allowed us to shoot in candlelight with normal looking flesh tones. Basically, I needed to amplify the candlelight a bit for exposure, and at the same time mitigate the reddish reflection on faces, so they look natural.
QUESTION: Did you discover anything else during testing that was useful?
CLARK: We used makeup that gave female skin tones a porcelain quality in keeping with the period. Women in England during the 17th century used umbrellas to shield them from sunlight, because pale skin tones were in vogue. It was probably also the makeup they used. We needed enough light to get the right exposures, and the right colors for the environment, flesh tones and textures. Our objective was to make sure that when the film was released in 35 mm format, no one would have any idea that we shot it in Super 16. We were simply using what we thought were the appropriate tools to achieve the results we wanted. There were some cost savings, but that wasn’t our objective.
A scene from “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” shot by DP Curtis Clark, ASC. Photo courtesy of British Film Institute
QUESTION: What did you do about lighting other than candles and lanterns?
CLARK: We mainly lit day interior scenes with a few HMI outside of windows. There were also a couple of small HMI soft lights inside, but the source of light was always motivated by what came from outside the windows. Night interiors were a mixture of actual candles and lanterns that you see in the shots, augmented by a few very small and lightweight soft lights that I had rigged on extension arms that were wooden beams attached to C stands. The lamps had tungsten bulbs and individual dimmer controls that were very accurate. That allowed me to bring the voltage down until the color temperature of the tungsten light matched the candles. The slightest mismatch would have been obvious. It wouldn’t have looked or felt right.
QUESTION: Did Peter block and have marks for the actors or was it more spontaneous?
CLARK: Peter was very precise in blocking and laying down marks for the actors. There was no traditional coverage of master and close-up shots. The film mainly consists of single shots, except for montages that link sequences and scenes together. There are many important scenes that were filmed in one take, or by choosing a particular take during editing. There wasn’t a lot of, ‘Let’s use the first part of take one and the second part of take seven, and put them together.’
QUESTION: Was Peter a one-take or 20-take director, or was it something in-between?
CLARK: The answer to that question is that he knew when he got what he wanted, and he was comfortable in making that decision without video assist. The questions he had for me were whether the camera was where he wanted it to be during tracking shots in dialogue exchanges at the dinner table. He wanted the audience to see someone talking and someone else responding or reacting at the right moments. The camera movement had to be precise, but I was the only one who actually saw what we were shooting.
QUESTION: It sounds like this was a very close collaborative process.
CLARK: It was a very intimate collaboration with everyone on the same page. Peter had definite ideas of what he wanted, but he was totally open to suggestions about how to accomplish it. Peter would say things like, ‘Surprise me’ and ‘Delight me.’ The actors were available all the time, regardless of whether their scenes were scheduled to be shot that day. If Peter decided that the morning light was perfect to shoot an exterior scene, he could change the schedule without any consequences, because he knew that the actors would be ready and willing whenever he needed them.
QUESTION: We have read the reviews, and verified that the critics loved The Draughtsman’s Contract. That must have been an exhilarating experience.
CLARK: I had never done anything like that before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. It was initially released in one theater in London. The lines wrapped twice around the block every day, and every performance was sold out. The number of screens was significantly expanded after the original release. It played for one year continuously in England, which is pretty extraordinary in itself, and it got a major art house release in the United States. Remember that was a different time with a larger art house market. Honestly, I was surprised that it made that kind of impact, but I had a very strong belief in The Draughtsman’s Contract from the beginning. We could see that the performances were remarkable while we were making the film. None of the reviews I read mentioned that we shot it in Super 16 format. It was definitely an unconventional approach to narrative filmmaking, but I believe that the audience connected with it.