The Draughtsman's Contract Review

The Draughtsman’s Contract arrives on DVD with a sizeable reputation. This is, after all, the film which launched the international careers of both director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman; was one of the first features to receive finance from Channel Four; and also reinvigorated in audiences an interest for the period drama, albeit ones which moved beyond the merely pictorial. Yet for all this, it is the origins of The Draughtsman’s Contract, rather than its effects, which prove more interesting.

Having produced a number of documentary-influenced works for the BFI, Greenaway was prompted by the then Head of Production Peter Sainsbury to undertake what is perhaps the ultimate experiment for the experimental filmmaker, namely to partake in the devices of the mainstream. This meant, in response to Greenaway’s work at the time, to adopt something of a true narrative drive or, to put it simply, a story. And it’s an undertaking which prompts a question or two. Should The Draughtsman’s Contract therefore be viewed, and judged, merely on narrative terms? (In the manner of say a John Wayne Western made for Republic circa 1934, films which offered nothing beyond their storylines.) And if so, does it then fail if it operates on any other level beyond these terms?

If the theatrical trailer of a film can be used as an indication of its intentions, then The Draughtsman’s Contract would appear to offer only a perfunctory interest in plot. The production design and Nyman’s soundtrack figure as the major selling points with only a brief mention of the eponymous contract (a draughtsman will complete twelve drawings in exchange for twelve sexual favours) to raise any intrigue. Yet whilst this is also, to a degree, true of the film itself, it doesn’t quite pin down Greenaway’s intentions. Indeed, his roots as an experimental filmmaker do compromise the storyline, but it is this balancing act between producing an accessible, mainstream work and remaining true to these roots which provides The Draughtsman’s Contract with its strengths and makes it such a fascinating piece to watch.

The closest connection between Greenaway’s film and the mainstream is through its adoption of a familiar narrative model. In this case it is the “country house” thriller best typified by the novels of Agatha Christie or Gosford Park or the “isolated house” horror film exemplified by James Whale’s The Old Dark House. In either the crux of the plotting is the occurrence of a murder at this location and the establishing of a number of suspects. For Greenaway, however, such a hackneyed device becomes a means of providing a more cryptic entertainment. At once The Draughtsman’s Contract is able to both forward itself in narrative terms and provide a framework on which the director can hang his recurrent obsessions.

From this point of view The Draughtsman’s Contract is the most important of all of Greenaway’s work inasmuch as it serves as a bridge between the earlier career as an experimental filmmaker and the later one as an internationally established arthouse director. As such it is perhaps unsurprising that it should both look forwards and backwards to other entries in his filmography. The scenes which unfold below the credits, for example, possess a stylistic approach which is reminiscent of that from Vertical Features Remake, albeit with human participants, and also contain snatches of oddly humorous yet unconnected snatches of dialogue as per Dear Phone. Indeed, these very moments signify the very bridge between the two careers as these pieces of dialogue set up themes which would continue to concern the director in every film he has made since. Infidelity (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), peculiar sexual relationships (8½ Women), the role of women in society (The Pillow Book), the relationship between sex and death (A Zed & Two Noughts) and, of course, the contract itself (The Belly of an Architect) all gain a mention. Indeed, they produce another list for an oeuvre typified by them (and then we could even add this further with the little throwaway moments such as a child recounting the alphabet, as seen elsewhere in H is for House and A Zed & Two Noughts).

With these various concerns in mind it is understandable that Greenaway has to adopt a specific approach in order to fully realise them. The Draughtsman’s Contract may be a film with a clearly defined hero and a number of definite villains, yet the approach of, say, Shane simply wouldn’t accommodate all of the ideas. So whilst Greenaway uses traditional devices (linear narrative structure, a sense of identification with the lead, etc.) he also throws in a number of less usual techniques in order to create a sense of dislocation.

Indeed, it would appear that Greenaway is adamant that his audience doesn’t become wholly (or solely) consumed by the plotline. Throughout he adopts an approach which either enhances or accentuates The Draughtsman’s Contract’s constituent elements. There is an air of theatricality as well as a painterly edge: costumes are a little too exaggerated so that their inherent flamboyance becomes dominant; the dialogue is infused with an overly decorative verbosity; and the camera set-ups are almost exclusively made up of medium shots, held for long durations, and focus on symmetries and unusual framing. Even Nyman’s score – the trailer’s big selling point – is employed in an unconventional manner. Its function would appear to be almost entirely decorative as it neither underlines nor punctuates any of the dramatic tension. Indeed, The Draughtsman’s Contract can be seen as a film without true dramatic resolve; all of the elements are there, yet Greenaway never provides us with an easily digestible explanation at the film’s close – rather we must pick up the pieces as we go along and form our own picture.

Of course, what this means is that The Draughtsman’s Contract can seem overbearing on an initial viewing. Yet surely this also points up Greenaway’s success inasmuch as the sheer density of the film invites repeated viewings. Certainly, it may be the case that not everyone will pick up every tiny nuance over time (the political machinations are likely to be obscure to the vast majority), but the amount of layers mean that it is continually rewarding nonetheless. To my mind Greenaway has gone on to produce superior works since (A Zed & Two Noughts being a particular favourite) but almost 25 years later this still stands as a fine example of British cinema.

The Disc

The Draughtsman’s Contract comes to Region 2 DVD in agreeable form. The film is presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.77:1 (slightly cropping the OAR of 1.66:1) and is almost entirely dirt free. Moreover, the colours are particularly rich and Greenaway himself was involved in this release so we can presume that the director himself is happy with the final product. That said, the image isn’t perfect and suffers from being softer than should be expected – and given that the film is constructed largely from long- to medium-shots, it is a quality which cannot be easily ignored. Nevertheless, the film remains watchable if not perfect.

Having less to contend with, the soundtrack fares better. Remaining crisp and clean throughout, the English DD2.0 (there’s also a two-channel French offering) offers no problems and copes ably with both Greenaway’s dialogue and Nyman’s score.

What makes this disc so covetable, however, is the inclusion of a number of noteworthy extras. From Greenaway himself we get a full-length audio commentary, liner notes, 10-minute introduction as well as archive footage of him in work and an interview on the set. Understandably, such a combination results in some crossover, yet Greenaway is such a considered speaker/writer that he’s never less than engaging. Indeed, his commentary is little short of superb as he discusses seemingly ever facet at great length and in a manner which can only further your appreciation for the film itself. Moreover, he rarely pauses for breath meaning that all 103 minutes are used to the fullest.

Elsewhere on the disc we also find some input from actors Anthony Higgins and Janet Suzman in the form of archive interviews, a handful of intriguing, if inessential, deleted scenes, a restoration comparison which takes us through the various remastering processes, and a gallery of production stills and drawings (as an aside, it was Greenaway himself who drew the various pieces created by the draughtsman throughout the film). It is also worth mentioning that, alongside the less important theatrical trailer and weblink, an easter egg which allows the viewer to peruse the film’s original press book.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 08:28:41

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