Category: Peter Greenaway

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Cryptic puzzles abound in Greenaway’s debut, a striking, oblique country house murder mystery (with bodily fluids)

Director: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Anthony Higgins (Robert Neville), Janet Suzman (Virginia Herbert), Anne-Louise Lambert (Sarah Talmann), Hugh Fraser (Mr Talmann), Neil Cunningham (Thomas Noyes), Dave Hill (Mr Herbert), Michael Feast (Living statue), David Meyer & Tony Meyer (Poulenc brothers), Nicholas Amer (Parkes), Susan Crowley (Mrs Pierpont), Lynda La Plante (Mrs Clement)

Peter Greenaway’s work often feels more like complex, intellectual art projects than films. They are dizzying, mystifying morasses of symbolism, veiled hints, numerical games, puzzles and oblique references, all wrapped up in a stunning visual originality that speaks volumes for Greenaway’s instincts as an artist. All of which means to say, don’t come to a Greenaway film expecting such comforting things as plot or characters. The Draughtsman’s Contract was his first ‘narrative’ feature film and is still (perhaps) the finest example of his complex, challenging (and often, let’s be honest, frustrating) style. Constantly keeping you in your toes, there are few films like it out there.

Its 1694 and famed draughtsman Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is approached by country lady Mrs Hebert (Janet Suzman) to create twelve drawings of her husband’s expansive house and gardens, while her husband is away in London. Neville is less than interested in the commission – until Mrs Herbert agrees to his unusual terms that he will have complete control over the house and access to her person at any time that he wishes to “take his pleasure”. Neville sets about his drawings with the detailed fanaticism of a man determined to capture reality exactly as it is: but strange items and objects keep appearing in his panoramas, dutifully reproduced in his drawings. Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) inveigles Neville into her own ‘contract’ for ‘taking her pleasure’. Is there is something going on in this house that Neville is unaware of?

Greenaway described the film as, in part, an Agatha Christie style murder mystery, with the unloved, bullying husband Mr Herbert as the victim. But then, in true Greenaway style, he also stated any explanation of the identity of the killers, their motives or indeed anything that could explain the crime was unnecessary because the clues were all there and any half-way intelligent viewer could figure them out. In many ways it’s a huge pleasure to have a director who treats his audience with such respect. It’s also an indication, perhaps, that plot was also the thing he was least interested in.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is a fascinating, immersive, coldly intellectual but endlessly puzzling film. Visually it’s like an art-history banquet. Images inspired by a host of the greats (and some lesser knowns) abound. From the film’s opening with its Caravaggio candle-lit interiors to its Hogathian interior shots, it comments throughout on the differences in art between representation and imagination. Neville believes art to be defined by its ability to capture reality: the idea of creation and invention is almost anathema to him, his art a careful preserving of events. It’s why he controls the conditions he paints in so absolutely and why he powerlessly includes the random pieces of clothing (among other things) that appear in his tableaus.

What is happening here? It’s clear something is going on. What slowly becomes clear to us as well is, that for all his slightly repellent arrogant and confidence, Neville has no idea what it is, or even perhaps that anything is happening at all. For all his bragging of his magnificent eye and ability to immediately perceive the smallest change he pretty much misses everything of consequence in the film. He detects no real ulterior mystery here because he seems to lack the imagination to grasp one, so preoccupied is he with his arrogant enjoyment of his commission’s benefits.

Greenaway presents Neville as the sort of pedestrian, camera-obsessed film-maker I imagine he scorns. Neville sets up his easels and perspective device (which even has a viewfinder) like a movie camera, obsessively fiddling with its set-up with never a thought for the deeper truth behind his striking images. Is this a comment on the lack of imagination in film-makers? Is Greenaway saying they are as bluntly obsessed with the beautiful cross-hatching of details stops them from creating something truly visually striking, or discovering the “spiritual truth” behind the details?

It’s that failure to pick up the spiritual truth that is Neville’s downfall. Slowly we realise the house’s owner is unlikely to return alive. The curiously artificial behaviour of everyone in the house, their sterile, detailed lives and obsessions with form, becomes overwhelming sinister. Neville however, charges about, aggressively pushing Mrs Herbert through sexual encounters (she even vomits after their first one – no Greenaway film is complete without every excretion the human body can produce), provoking her impotent son-in-law Mr Talmann (a vilely aristocratic Hugh Fraser) and endearing himself to no-one. It never occurs to him he might be being used.

Very few answers are spoken in the film. It’s left to us to figure out who might have committed the murder, and largely to surmise why two childless women allow Neville to take such liberties with them at a time of strict inheritance laws that denies rights to childless women. An elaborate trick is being played on Neville, dependent on his arrogant assumption that he is in charge. In fact, in his black clothes, loud voice and lack of over-elaborate hair and make-up, he is an out-of-his-depth outsider, even as he behaves with the rumbunctious confidence of a man at the top of the hierarchy.

Greenaway’s film is full of small curiosities that largely go unnoticed. Small details in the house are clearly out of period. A small boy sketches what looks like spaceships. Above all, the house’s grounds are populated by a nude living statue (played in a performance of physical dexterity by Michael Feast), painted grey, who seems to see and hear everything but is invisible to all. As to what this means, who can really say (Greenaway ain’t telling), although in true Greenaway style we get to watch him piss. Is it perhaps a comment on the increasingly obvious things Neville is missing? Or a sort of holy fool or Puck-figure, observing the mayhem with fascination?

This is a film that can get frustrating as its oblique conversations work overtime to obscure their meaning and intent. But it’s so marvellously, and intricately, assembled it just about gives you enough to fascinate to balance. The painterly shooting style – often with a static camera – is visually striking, as is the overblown grandeur of costume and design. Michael Nyman’s score – a remix of Purcell – is astoundingly good, subtle themes accompanying each action. The film descends into a bleakly terrible ending, that could sit comfortably in the worst kind of folk horror, as Neville discovers just how little he really saw while he was looking.

But it’s really an experience more than a film. Like a slice of recorded life carrying a deep allegorical message of mankind’s darkness in a way Greenaway, bless him, has the confidence we will get. There is a magnetic performance from Anthony Higgins, whose bombast and pride still somehow makes him just-about-sympathetic. An oblique commentary on art and life, The Draughtsman’s Contract offers no easy answers (or any answers at all really) but is full of images, moments and concept that will fascinate, appal and certainly stick with you long after it’s blackly nihilistic ending.

Nightwatching (2007)

Martin Freeman is the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn in this bizarre part drama part art lecture

Director: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt), Eva Birthistle (Saskia van uylenburg), Jodhi May (Geertje Dircx), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoffels), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Natalie Press (Marieka), Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Marita), Adrian Lukis (Frans Banning Cocq), Adam Kotz (Willem van Ruytenburch), Michael Culkin (Herman Wormskerck)

There are few artists who have such a distinctive visual style as Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the greatest of the Dutch masters. And there are few filmmakers with such distinctive style as Peter Greenaway. So this film is a sort of perfect marriage: Greenaway, the man who claims most of the world is visually illiterate and incapable of understanding the grace and depth of visual images (be they film or painting), taking the secret language of Rembrandt’s paintings.

Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is hired to paint the Militia Company of District II. There is, however, a conspiracy in the company. Captain Hasselberg (Andrzek Seweryn), the original commissioner of the painting, is killed, seemingly in an accident, and replaced by Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis) and his lickspittle deputy Willem van Ruytenburch (Adam Kotz). Rembrandt believes the accident was in fact murder, removing Hasselberg so that the other members of the militia can profit in a financial deal with the British government (I won’t go into the details). Alongside this, the film also looks at the personal life of Rembrandt and his relationship with his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and, after her death, his maids and mistresses, Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickhe Stoffels (Emily Holmes).

Peter Greenaway is a visual stylist that’s for sure. The film takes place (apart from a few outdoor sequences in a forest) in a sort of representative set that looks a bit like a combination of a theatre stage and the bare framework of a Dutch interior painting. The camera frequently uses the width of the frame to squeeze in full-body shots of its characters, and the width and depth of the room, to try and replicate as much as possible the look and feel of these artworks. An early discussion of colour (and how to describe it) is illustrated by Geertje opening curtains in a representation of Rembrandt’s bedroom, with each colour (red-yellow-blue) in turn flooding the room from the open windows. The film looks distinctive and impressive, the costume design is meticulously researched, and the artful framing to ape the conventions and styles of Rembrandt’s painting is extremely well done.

What is less well done is the actual story itself, which is largely inert and frequently dull, and takes ages to outline what is, to be honest, a not particularly interesting conspiracy. It then intercuts this with scenes and moments from Rembrandt’s domestic life, but never ties the two of these together into something coherent. Too immersed in the details of the case to be the sort of dream-cum-fantasy of previous Greenaway films like The Draughtman’s Contract, and too preoccupied with the director’s narrative laxity to become a proper character study or piece of investigative fiction, the film rather uncomfortably falls between two stools becoming neither one thing or the other.

In fact, you almost sense Greenaway’s heart wasn’t really in it, that he really wanted to make Rembrandt J’Accuse, the companion art lecture illustrated with moments from this film, which really goes to town on his conspiracy theory. The details of the conspiracy (extremely hard to follow here) are at least easier to follow in Rembrandt J’Accuse, where they make a batty but enjoyable Dan Brownish argument – even if it is based on hands being drawn “without commitment” and elastic interpretations of visual language. To be honest, for all that Rembrandt J’Accuse is a bit odd – and that Peter Greenaway has an air of an ultra-pretentious Johnny Ball in his addresses to the camera – it actually makes a far more compelling piece of cinema than the narrative film it sits alongside.

Which is a shame because, as well as the design, there is a lot of good stuff here, not least in the performance of Martin Freeman. Cinema and TV’s eternal nice-guy gets to stretch himself fantastically as an electric, compelling genius overflowing with passion, ideas, intelligence and a chippy (frequently foul mouthed) confidence, mixed with an insatiable sex drive and nose-thumbing defiance. Freeman really gets the sense of a complex, earthy, fiery man who knows he is the smartest man in the room, and is extremely cocky with it – but also has a keen sense of justice and decency. It’s about a million miles away from Tim or Bilbo, and a big reminder that he is a hell of a performer.

Put Freeman in with the thrilling design and painterly flourishes of the film, and you’ve got sections that are really worth watching. Eva Birthistle is very good as his intelligent and articulate wife, as is Johdi May as his earthy, ill-tempered, sensual lover. Nathalie Press is heart-breaking as an illegitimate girl with a tragic life. Adrian Lukis is particularly smarmy and vile as the head of the militia. In fact, most of the performances are great.

It’s just the story is not. Moments of investigation are just building into something logical and coherent when they get interrupted by straight-to-camera addresses (very odd) from the members of the Rembrandt household explaining their personal situations. Just as we start to get invested in the loves of Rembrandt, we get thrown back into the dull conspiracy. When the two overlap, neither is really served. The story frankly isn’t interesting enough. That’s even before you have to wade through the inevitable Greenaway penchant for including as much full-frontal nudity as possible (Freeman and May in particular) and graphic sex in multiple positions and orifices. I mean, I get it, Rembrandt was a lusty guy but do we need to keep seeing it?

Nightwatching is a bizarre oddity – a vehicle for a commanding lead performance, with an actor cast way against type, that never decides whether it is some sort of biography of an artist or a secret-history-expose of a conspiracy forgotten by time. As always with conspiracy theories you suspect the obvious-but-dull is probably the truth – Rembrandt delivered a painting that was so radically different from the dull line-up paintings of this genre that it shook up the art world (not in a good way) and then he fell out of fashion, didn’t have a good understanding of money, and went bankrupt, rather than being destroyed by a shadowy Amsterdam cabal. Greenaway is so in love with his theories – and his usual lusty and psychological obsessions – that he ends up with something that is neither a drama or an art lecture but somewhere in the middle with the worst aspects of both.