The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Peter Greenaway | 1hr 48min

There is a murder mystery lingering beneath the Baroque façade of this late 17th century English country manor, though the question is less about who committed the killing, and more how one Mr Neville fits into it all. He is a young artist, commissioned by Mrs Herbert to sketch twelve landscapes of her estate for her absent husband, and in his creative pursuits he demands perfectionism. Each day he repeats in voiceovers the time and place of where he will conduct his work, and clears everyone from the gardens to guarantee clinical consistency. Still, small imperfections begin to slip in here and there. A ladder leading up to a window. A shirt slashed across its front. Gradually each one of these artistic renderings become more like incomplete pieces in a confounding puzzle, disturbing Mr Neville’s measured sensibilities within a plot he can’t possibly grasp.

There is a definite parallel between the painterly ideals of our stubborn protagonist and Peter Greenaway, whose artistic precision emerges in predominantly static tableaux, framing perfectly manicured gardens and meticulously arranged interiors with a similarly painterly attention to detail. Kubrickian seems like a fitting descriptor here, not just in representing the cold distance with which these characters are regarded, but also in our understanding of the film as a descendant of Barry Lyndon’s stylistic lineage.

These interiors are Sternbergian in the obstruction of actors through period decor, but the precision and coldness feels entirely Kubrickian.

Greenaway’s depiction of historical British aristocrats surrounded by extravagant period décor especially works to build up the theatrical artifice of their high society, as we observe in the film’s opening where they gather within candle-lit rooms and in symmetrical arrangements around elaborate displays of fruit to gossip among themselves. His artistic perspective is even more evident in his use of Mr Neville’s drafting board as a frame through which his camera observes the Herbert estate, crafting his own picturesque images much like the draughtsman himself.

A constant framing of these beautifully manicured gardens through Mr Neville’s drafting board, revealing Greenaway’s own painterly sensibilities.

But for all his mathematical precision, Greenaway is evidently more prepared to wrestle with the inconsistencies of his subject matter than Mr Neville. It isn’t just the strange clues being left around the garden, but often just beyond the view of other characters there lurks a naked man, always painted to resemble either a sculpture or otherwise blend in with his surroundings. Trying to decipher the logic behind this figure’s bizarre actions would be a waste of time, as this would be to submit to the flawed idealism that Mr Neville attempts to impose order upon his surroundings. The living sculpture is rather a human manifestation of chaos, discreet in its appearance, unpredictable in its movements, and impertinently disrespectful to everyone caught up in this high aristocratic culture.

The nude man making subtle appearances outside dinners and gatherings. His mere appearance is a disturbance in this mannered culture.

As beautiful as Mr Neville’s sketches are, they do not capture the truth of this mysterious man’s identity or his environment. One would also never realise from his drawings that the residents of this majestic mansion trade snarky barbs that undercut its image of civility, nor that it is housing a sordid affair between Mrs Herbert and the draughtsman himself. In graphic match cuts between his black-and-white drawings and the real landscapes, we see the beautiful colour drained from this setting, though it is clear that Greenaway is also working against Mr Neville’s inflexible artistic methodology. Michael Nyman’s jaunty Baroque score of harpsichords, saxophones, and bass guitars feels particularly in line with his brazen aesthetic, mixing traditional and contemporary instruments as part of a vaguely anachronistic chamber ensemble, which also fits superbly within the film’s mischievous irreverence. It is primarily through this playful aesthetic that the hollow power plays and puzzles of The Draughtsman’s Contract begin to reveal themselves, so that by the end of Greenaway’s obscure murder mystery we may even delight in its final bitter twist of the knife.

Greenaway cares fare more about aesthetic than plot, as it is through that which we begin to understand the dynamics of this quaint but nefarious aristocratic culture.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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