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In this much criticised and often misunderstood movie, Greenaway brings us a
rich, allegorical riddle that luxuriates in its idyllic restoration setting.
It succeeds on its own merits even if the story may confuse the viewer at
first, the sheer pun and wit of the script and extravagant use of costume
and visual gag see to that. We have enormous wigs, living statues that
really pee, an indulgence of fruit, erotic interludes and a general
celebration of pleasure. Behind this is a brilliantly constructed story that
can be appreciated on a number of different levels. We have an 'Agatha
Christie' style country house murder mystery, an investigation of class and
religious opposition at the end of the 17th century, a philosphical study of
the problem of artists' perception of the world (is what we 'see' what we
actually perceive it to be?).
At root though, Greenaway knows his mythology and understands the role of the fertility rite across societies and cultures. In this allegory, Mrs Herbert persuades the Draughtsman (Mr. Neville) to draw her husband's estate, sexual favours being the lure. The drawings are merely a front for a deeper and darker motive: ensuring that the matrimonial line will produce the heir to the country estate. The line is blocked by lack of a direct heir, the infertility of Mrs. Herbert's son in law and the fact that women cannot inherit the property. Evidence of Mr Neville's indiscretion eventually emerges in the 12 drawings for all to see -discarded clothing, ladders leading up to bedrooms- all rendered faithfully by the draughtsman who tries 'never to distort, nor dissemble' what he sees through his optical device. In so doing, he seals his fate. Mrs Herbert ensures that blame for both the death of her husband and adultery of her daughter is put on Neville. By the end of the movie he (and his drawings) are redundant, since we can assume he has borne the heir.
In ancient Greece, the Gods ruled the seasons and the fertility of the land. Here, Mrs Herbert draws the link between those times and her role as the real custodian of the 'fertility' of her husband's estate. Watch for the scene near the end when she places the pomegranate on Neville's stomach. The women are in control throughout, the men mere bit players, the drones and worker bees. Watch and listen with care! This is a film that repays many viewings. 'There is much there to be surprised at, and applauded!!'.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This very witty and intelligent film is structured on many layers, full of
intrigue and double meanings. The style is as a Restoration mystery but it
also discusses the value of art and men's attitude to women with some
excellent damning put downs of both sexes. The religious, political and
social issues of 1694 (the dawn of the Age of Reason) are examined and the
chauvinism of the time is expressed by Mrs Talmann (Anne Louise Lambert) who
acidly chides her father for cataloging her mother as the least of his
assets: `a house, a garden, a horse, a wife, the preferential
An arrogant draughtsman (Mr Neville, played with suitable conceit by Anthony Higgins) is commissioned by Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) to sketch 12 drawings of her husband's house and gardens in exchange for reluctant sexual favours. The precise orders of the draughtsman are thwarted and misplaced objects start to appear in the etchings, as he is a stickler for detail and will persist in depicting exactly what he sees (`I try very hard never to distort or to dissemble'). Mr Neville soon becomes embroiled in the strange goings on in the garden, and the political and sexual machinations of Mr Herbert's friends and family. Mr Talmann (a wonderfully priggish Hugh Fraser, unrecognisable as Hastings in ITV's dramatisations of Agatha Christie's Poirot) is persuaded that the drawings are evidence of a physical liaison between his wife and the draughtsman, whilst she illustrates the more sinister interpretation of witness to the murder of her father. Ultimately the women are shown to have had the upper hand and Mr Neville to have been a mere pawn in their schematics, with his fulfilment of their true purpose to sire an heir.
The film demands repeated viewing to pick up on its nuances and to see other perspectives, and I particularly appreciated the exploration of what we see may not be what it seems. There are plenty of visual treats including a colourfully rich display of the gardens complete with living statues, and a pomegranate, the symbol of eternal life and passion, being used to demonstrate the blood of the newborn. The atmosphere is deliberately cold, emphasised by the fixed camera positions that keep the protagonists at a distance from the viewer, with mainly restrained performances in outrageous costumes, accompanied by Michael Nyman's brilliant musical score.
This very accessible Peter Greenaway film is both original and rewarding, and though not as well known as his later works such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, it is a great introduction to his exceptional art (as is Drowning by Numbers). It is my personal favourite not least due to two of its beautiful ingredients, namely the ever lovely Anne Louise Lambert (Picnic at Hanging Rock), and the backdrop setting of the lush scenic countryside with the gently rolling hills of East Sussex. The former proving long before the current crop of Hollywood stars that Australian actors make for some of the most versatile, and the latter (albeit exaggerated by the green filters and subsequently somewhat decimated by the 1987 hurricane) making very pleasant walking country.
Incidentally Compton Anstey in the film is actually Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells (on the East Sussex/West Kent border). The grounds (including the added attraction of the `Enchanted Forest') are open to the public (the house is private and was up for sale in the summer of 2000 at around £600,000). There are none of the obelisks so prominent in the film but the uniform yew hedges remain. I can recommend it as a great place to visit, especially with children.
Curiously copies of this film in the UK in VHS PAL format were available from BlackStar but have been deleted since 8 May 2001. Their Video Hunt service could be used or try contacting the distributor, Artificial Eye Film Company Ltd.
A most extraordinary film. A fascinating study of manipulation and murder,
of sex, power and the abuse of sex and power. This is not always an easy
film to like, it has a coldly clinical approach to its subject and
protagonists which produces an intentionally distancing effect.
In one scene, the Draughtsman invites the Lady of the House to examine a painting, owned by her husband, in which a complex allegory appears to be being acted out. I see this as an analogy for the film as a whole - it is an arch, stylised, intelligent and beautiful puzzle (a murder-mystery) in which the audience is encouraged to consider the motives and objectives of the characters, but from which many important clues appear to have been deliberately removed.
This might all sound frustrating, but I find the film endlessly intriguing and entertaining. It's like a very clever and stunningly photographed Agatha Christie mystery, but without an annoying sleuth who comes along at the end and solves everything "oh-so-neatly".
The photography is exemplary (the cinematographer, Curtis Clark, seems to have done little else of note), with the camera hardly moving at all, except for an occasional tracking shot. The Kent countryside used to maximum effect, and the costumes are sumptuous (especially the wigs!). The music is also superb, with Michael Nyman producing probably his finest score.
An engaging, puzzling, visually stunning and, ultimately, rather disturbing film.
The first Peter Greenaway's feature "The Draughtsman's Contract" (1982)
- is absolutely delightful, devilishly clever (just imagine the best
Agatha Christy's mystery with all sorts of clues and suspects but
without Poirot or Ms. Maple to explain in the end whodunit and why. You
are on your own to try to figure out - everything you need to know is
right there), and funny (Yes, Greenaway can be funny!) art film - the
perfect example of an art film. It combines the elements of social
satire with murder mystery, meditates on the power of art and role of
an artist, studies family drama and mothers daughters love and
understanding, perfectly wraps it in sensual pleasure - and what the
pleasure it is. I know I will watch it again because it is a feast for
eyes (I've seen big budget movies that looked plain comparing to this
one shot on the limited funds), ears (Michael Nyman wrote one of the
best score ever for this film) and for brain - there are mysteries and
puzzles in every frame and in every dialog.
There is couple of Greenaway's thoughts on his first film and on the films that influenced him from the interview that was published in L'Avant-Scene Cinema", No 333, October 1984:
"Majority of my films may be viewed on several levels. Thus, in "The Draughtsman's Contract" there was the desire to open the symbolism of plants and fruits, to study the connections between the aristocrats and the common people, the conflicts between the worlds of gentlemen and of servants. With my films, I hope to generate interest, to stimulate imagination, to wake feelings...
I consider that 90% of my films one way or another refers to paintings. "Contract" quite openly refers to Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour and other French and Italian artists...
Before the work on the film began, I did not explain to film crew what I wanted, but I showed them five European films: "Fellini's Casanova", "The Last Tango in Paris" by Bertolucci, "The Marquise of O" by Eric Rohmer, "Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach" by Jean-Marie Straub and, most importantly, "Last Year at Marienbad" by Alain Resnais which has been the most influential film for me."
Is Greenaway our most intelligent filmmaker? One of them at least. He is
master of lush self-referential allegory. Here this is hung on a mystery
masquerading as restoration comedy. Just maintaining the period and manner
is quite a feat.
Self-reference. The film is about an artist who creates rich images that include incongruous elements. The arrogance of the artist is balanced by his blindness as to the meaning, the context of what the images reveal. Both the artist and the viewers are confused by the meaning and flummoxed by the events that the meaning triggers. Greenaway clearly means this to extend to himself, his film and the incompleteness of what we the viewers see. The drawings and the drawer's hands are in fact his.
Fantasy-allegory. This is a film richer in symbology than Drowning and Cook, but probably less so than the later `book' movies. Great attention has been spent on recondite supplementary images, including a central painting in the house being itself painted by the draftsman and filmmaker. I viewed it (the whole film) once just for details. The living statue is only the most obvious illogical element, and in fact draws attention away from other smaller visual diversions.
Mystery artifice. The whole environment is one of genteel artifice, hiding cruel mechanics of conspiracy. The cleverness of the construction is that Greenaway and us are full conspirators. No one, not us, him or the characters shown fully understand what is going on. The mystery form has always been a dialog between artist and consumer, a contest to see who can outwit whom. Very clever use of the mystery form here to include us in the artifice by not ever `playing fair.'
Restoration comedy. Past the visual allegory and the fantasy mystery and the self-reference is a restoration comedy which taken straight is hilarious. The statue is from this form.
My only criticisms are minor. This film contains a restrained story, and incidentally all sex takes place offscreen. Why be so conservative in these areas? Also, Lady Herbert required a more powerful actress I think.
This is a most intricately structured enigma of a film, one that seems on
the surface to be ordinary, but underneath has many layers that need
examining in detail from several viewings. The story is set in the English
countryside in 1694. The prominent character is a draughtsman named Mr.
Neville, who is asked by a lady named Mrs. Herbert to make twelve drawings
of her house from different angles. He agrees, as long as he can have the
lady for his intimate pleasure.
Mr. Neville is a perfectionist, and very meticulous in his drawings. He states to everyone at the house all his rules about everything that has to remain in the same place while he draws. The film moves along nicely, everything seems usual, then events start to become strange. Stone statues start to move around, and take up different locations to contort into another static pose. Objects start to change location to confuse Mr. Neville in his drawings. Then Mrs. Herbert's daughter approaches Mr. Neville and tells him her father may have been murdered. She says she has evidence to indict Mr. Neville of his murder, and blackmails him, requesting his service for her sexual needs. Then Mr. Herbert's body is found in a ditch and things get even more complex.
This film is one of those that you need to watch and try and unravel yourself. To try to do that here in this review is almost impossible. I recommend it. It is exquisitely performed and filmed. The costumes are good. The speeches by the cast are delivered in a grandiose and statement-like manner. The music is appropriate. A classic piece of puzzling cinema that will have you watching it many times.
Being of English origin the film has a particular fascination. Certain
things become apparent if you know England well, but also I suspect on
A tale of conceit, deception and power. The conceit of the Draughtsman, all too apparent, is matched by the conceit of the upper classes as the film unfolds. The pictoral conceit referred to in the film repeatedly is matched by a pictoral conceit played on the viewer: the wigs were never that big, the house, garden and grounds stunning and the weather too perfect.
Deception exists at many levels. The viewer is deceived as to where the houses and events take place. The allusions are to Southampton and surrounding areas. Being from the Southampton area I realized this wasn't Southampton. Though it could possibly have been. The deception was convincing. The location is Kent. I believe this deception, which fits so nicely in the film anyway, was pulled so that the owner of the house where the film is centred around would not be invaded by tourists. A nice touch which I suspect follows the line in the film, something like this), "Do you think Mrs Talbot is a lady who likes her gravel being kicked around by a pack of dogs."
The arrogance and exploitation of the ladies of the house by the Draughtsman, readily apparent, is more sinisterly exceeded by the arrogance and exploitation of the Draughtsman by the ladies. The Draughtsman provides a cover for murder, solves the problem of transfer of the property by siring a child and finally ends up as the scapegoat for murder. While the Draughtsman may appear to be playing with the household for his own amusement, the Draughtsman himself is the focus of a much more brutal and more deadly game.
Like all the best films there is much going on in the film. The lines and language are wonderfully rich. The camera merely shows you the events. And it is not above deceiving you as a viewer. Trying to make sense of it all is great fun. Many things I didn't even see until the second or third viewing, let alone make sense of them!
A beautiful allegory which slowly unfolds and challenges the senses. Much like The Prisoner (1967) tv series, and hopefully The Prisoner (2000) movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We're in post Restoration England in 1694, and at a country estate
filled with condescending, witty, superficial creatures dressed in
heavy satins and lace, with chalk dusted cheeks, painted cupid lips and
beauty spots, and wearing magnificent high wigs with cascading curls
down to the waist...and that's just the men.
In their midst is Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a talented, successful and arrogant artist whose father, we learn later, was a tenant farmer. He is engaged by the lady of the estate, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to draw 12 views of the estate as a present for her clod of a husband, who will be away on business for the next 15 days. Mr. Neville declines. The unhappily married Mrs. Herbert increases his fee. Mr. Neville again declines. Mrs. Herbert offers him her intimate pleasure along with the fee. At that, Mr. Neville agrees. A contract is prepared which spells out Mr. Neville's exact requirements for the 12 views and Mrs. Herbert's contractual obligation for his pleasure. In the course of these two weeks the detailed views will be drawn, pleasure will be taken, Mrs. Herbert's daughter, Mrs. Tallman, will offer a contract of her own and we will learn a bit about heirs and impotency. The absent Mr. Herbert will return, but as a corpse discovered in the estate's moat.
I have no doubt that Peter Greenaway knew exactly what he was doing with The Draughtsman's Contract. Me? I know what I think happened...probably. I like this movie immensely. Discussing the meaning behind Greenaway's films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or Prospero's Books or The Draughtsman's Contract, is almost a small industry among film students and certain cineastes. A good place to start this sort of discussion, however, is not with "Greenaway was aiming at this..." but with "I think Greenaway was aiming at this..." That "I" language makes the speaker own his or her opinions, and almost invariably decreases the "Izzat so?" quotient. That's a positive. What I know is that I think The Draughtsman's Contract is a mannered, magnificent puzzle of a film, where everyone speaks in complete sentences. It's stuffed full of elegance, precision, disconcerting oddness, uncomfortable relationships, hidden motives, ego, style, art, sex, eye burning, murder and ambiguity. When this is all stirred together with Greenaway's imagination and ability to create disconcerting and beautiful visions, what more could a person want? Well, perhaps a story that moves from plot point to plot point, all clear and tidy, and with an ending that leaves us satisfied and happy. If that's so, then Greenaway is not for you. Better stick with Michael Shayne, Private Detective (another movie I like a lot).
"Your significance, Mr. Neville," says one important character, "is attributable to both innocence and arrogance in equal parts." His arrogance doesn't allow more than contempt for those privileged, condescending, shallow people he now is surrounded by during these two weeks. His innocence keeps him from considering the possibilities of what he sees but doesn't see. He is a man whose lovemaking is brutally self-centered and as mannered as his conversation, with his conversation continuing during his lovemaking, "You must forgive my curiosity, madam, and open your knees." Even so, we begin to feel a little uncomfortable for him. Almost as important to the plot is that Mr. Neville draws exactly what he sees. But what does he see? A window that is open when it should be closed? A ladder against a wall? A jacket on a bush when there had been a sheet? A pair of riding boots? It all has a point, but some of it is pure Greenaway. What is, after all, the point of the countertenor...or of the naked statue who is not a statue...or, for that matter, of the 13th drawing? How sure are we of the significance of the three pomegranates...or the last scene where we witness a slobbering bite of pineapple? I don't know, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
Janet Suzman and Anthony Higgins carry us along in great style. Almost as important are Anne-Louise Lambert as Mrs. Tallman, Mrs. Herbert's daughter, and Hugh Fraser as Mr. Tallman. The movie is gorgeous to look at, painterly in its compositions and without, in my opinion, a dull moment. All that clever, mannered dialogue sounds straight from a Restoration melodrama. The Draughtsman's Contract is a wonderful movie.
The best version is the Zeitgeist DVD release. It's been carefully restored, is anamorphic and has several interesting extras, including an introduction to the film by Greenaway.
This is a confusing and gorgeous film. Witty, clever and fun. A bit bizarre with its rococo themes and moodiness but a marvelously rich visual experience. The sight of the living statue peeing on command, as it were, tickled my funny bone. I loved it from the opening scenes to its strange ending.
This film should really be a 4 star triumph. Almost the entire film is
constituted of still-framed shots on location, optimising and
occasionally irrespective of the weather conditions. The acting is
brilliant; stylised, sure, but always engaging and intriguing. The
script is an object lesson in exposition and narrative through
convincing dialogue. Crucially the whole thing is endlessly amusing,
witty, startling, suggestive and naughty.
There's a problem. Mindful of its aesthetic, it's static and relies on the highly wrought script too much. The vernacular (another seamlessly incorporated feature of the writing) intensifies its density... consequently I found it difficult to follow in the detail it probably deserved. Not as tense, nor as sexy a piece as The Cook etc. but funnier. 6/10
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