A review of Peter Greenaway’s 1982 period film The Draughtsman’s Contract
Currently on holiday, I am using the blog not to sketch out lesson ideas but to jot down thoughts on films I have recently watched. One such movie is Peter Greenaway’s first feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract, a surreal 1982 costume drama. Having grown up in 1980s Britain, I am extremely grateful to have witnessed the arrival of Channel 4 and its groundbreaking support for British cinema via what was then Film on Four.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is one of Film on Four’s enduring critical success stories, before the broadcaster’s film production arm took a turn towards the mainstream in the ’90s with smash hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral. Along with the likes of Derek Jarman, Stephen Frears and Terence Davies, Channel 4 was thus instrumental in launching Greenaway’s directorial career, unleashing his strange and discomforting films on an unsuspecting public (myself included).
I caught a number of Greenaway’s films on Channel 4 in the late ’80s / early ’90s, most memorably 1989’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and always found his style repellent and impenetratable. I think at the time I felt that Greenaway’s penchant for static sets and theatrical set-pieces were almost a form of anti-cinema. Now I see these as the quirks of a singular talent, but I might have appreciated Greenaway’s work earlier had I seen The Draughtsman’s Contract before now.
As well as joint financing some of British cinema’s more radical output in the 1980s, Channel 4 broadcast fantastic film seasons in diverse genres which, along with the Alex Cox-curated Moviedrome on BBC2 from the late ’80s, helped me develop an appreciation of film history and foreign film I may otherwise have not come into contact with.
I am impelled to write about The Draughtsman’s Contract because I suspect I overlooked it when preparing my Phd thesis, an already-mammoth exploration of metafictional whodunits in British literature and visual arts. Sometimes known as “metaphysical” detective stories, notably in the volume edited by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (left), the genre has a long history – beginning in some accounts with Edgar Allan Poe and continuing today in the work of postmodernists such as Paul Auster and Umberto Eco, passing en route through the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges.
Such narratives usually turn the detective genre’s logic on its head by frustrating the reader’s desire for closure and understanding. The investigating figure, as avatar for the active observer that is the reader (or, indeed, cinema spectator), often finds himself the unknowing victim or indeed culprit of the mystery that he is himself trying to untangle.
Underneath such stories is a questioning of man’s ability to solve the mysteries of the world and his own existence (hence, the “metaphysics”). Sometimes such stories can appear no more than formal games; elsewhere they purport to reinject ambiguity and open-endedess into a genre which, as Raymond Chandler once argued, had a habit of “answering its own questions”, the result of which being there is “nothing left to discuss”.
As far as I am aware, no broad study of metaphysical detective stories in cinema has been conducted. Yet many of my favourite films have elements that dovetail with the genre, some of which I have already written about here, such as Rear Window, Blow Up, Blow Out and The Conversation. In all these films, the hero becomes an accidental detective, allowing himself to be obsessively drawn to and finally implicated in a mystery to which he was initially only an interested observer.
Neo-noir movies such as Bladerunner, Se7en and Angel Heart also evoke the genre, albeit with more overt detective heroes. On television two of my favourite series revolve, in very different ways, around such a premise: the original Twin Peaks and Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. The case for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, probably my all-time favourite film, could also be made.
The Draughtsman’s Contract chimes nicely with the themes I explored in my research because it recalls for many reviewers an Agatha Christie country-house whodunit. The comparison is not entirely apt – although there is a murder mystery and it does take place in an English country house, the film is also a costume drama set in post-Glorious Revolution England. There are no retired colonels or hieresses clutching at pearls – it is a much less familiar milieu, and Greenaway makes little attempt to turn it into one.
Instead, the formal English gardens in which much of the “action” takes place are mirrored in the very formal – and elegant – speech patterns. There is a certain froideur to human relations that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s often-overlooked 1975 period piece Barry Lyndon. Unlike that earlier film, however, Greenaway’s movie is not a literary adaptation, and has therefore few of the “prestige” qualities that are often used to market heritage films in Britain. This is not a Thackery (or Austen or Brontë) novel “brought to life” but a tale of intrigue and sexual exploitation with scenes of irreverant vulgarity that deliberately undermine our expectations of what a heritage film should be like (although this was before that genre truly exploded in the ’80s with the films of Merchant Ivory).
The reason I view The Draughtsman’s Contract as a kind of metaphysical detective story is that, setting aside its central murder mystery, it is a film about decyphering clues and entrapment. Like a detective, the titular hero is commissioned for his powers of observation. Mr Neville drives a hard bargain, insisting that his architectural sketches of the country house be paid in part by sexual favours from the lady of the manor.
In this respect, as other reviewers have pointed out, the film is a Renaissance version of Blow Up, in which the visual artist becomes unwitting witness to a crime. Unlike in the Antonioni movie, the anomalous objects that appear in the draughtsman’s sketches have been very carefully placed in the landscape as clues in which to incriminate him. As in Blow Up, there is a metafictional dimension – this is film about how mystery can be literally constructed out of a few disparate elements: a ladder out of place, some sheets hanging to dry on the lawn.
Without giving too much away about the plot and its ending, the tables are turned and fortunes reversed – as Mr Neville finds himself both suspect and finally victim of a conspiracy, the architecture of which he has himself unknowingly delineated.
Greenaway’s visual strategies – the static, painterly poise of his camera – echo the Mr Neville’s meticulous rendering of the house and gardens. Like Michael Nyman’s iconic score, there is something hypnotically repetitious about the way in which the artist sets himself to the task; the sketches themselves things of intriguing beauty. A film for the head rather than the heart, perhaps, but an original and memorable one.