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.