Title: The Draughtsman’s Contract
Language: English, German, Dutch
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Director/Writer: Peter Greenaway
Music: Michael Nyman
Cinematography: Curtis Clark
Lynda La Plante
UK maverick filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s Venice main competition entry in 1982, arguably his feature debut, a period picture steeped in highbrow phraseology, sumptuous baroque costumes and elusive intrigues.
In 1694, rural Wiltshire, Mr. Neville (Higgins), an eloquent, stuck-up draughtsman strikes a contact with Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Suzman), to complete 12 landscape drawings of her estate during the absence of her husband Mr. Herbert (Hill), with a proviso that Mrs. Herbert must meet him in private and consent to actions gratifying his pleasure, which Mrs. Herbert condones. Later, Sarah Talmann (Lambert), Mr. Herbert’s sole daughter approaches to Mr. Neville with a new proposal, but this time, she should be the recipient of their carnal knowledge, moreover, maybe there is also a hidden agenda behind it, as we apprehend that Sarah is married to Mr. Talmann (Fraser), yet they have no heir to inherit the Herberts’ fortune. A sinister turning point hits when Mr. Herbert’s body is found in the moat around the estate, soon the presumption that clues of the said murder can be unobtrusively garnered from Mr. Neville’s 12 drawings, unfortunately puts the latter in a perilous situation. In the final deciding crunch, Mr. Neville seems to be designated as the fall guy by a clique lead by the jealous Mr. Talmann, but nothing substantial of the conspiracy theory comes to full disclosure at last. The only unbidden witness of the appalling denouement is the camouflage man, a full-frontal figure at times inexplicably skulks out on the roof when the residents are dining al fresco, hides invisibly among the creepers, or straddles the bronze horse as a medieval knight, and finally gobbles up the pineapple.
Greenaway contrives at great length to frame the 12 drawings with his principally stationary camera angle and a vaguely anachronistic apparatus, an expedient stems from his artist upbringing and magnificently instils each and every scene with painting-like allure and precision, which balances out the elocutionary hyperbole in a positive way.
A core cast marshaled by Higgins, who triumphantly struts his haughtiness in an unstinting mode, precisely up to his last breath, whereas Janet Suzman puts on an imperial air spiked with a tense impression of self-inflicted dejection, she might be as clueless as the scapegoat, but is certainly swell in her cogent diction about pomegranate and deities. Anne-Louise Lambert, the ethereal Australian beauty from Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975), is quite unrecognizable (much as everybody else) under the elaborate garments, but pulls off a brilliant equivocation in contrast to Hugh Fraser’s competently rebarbative impersonation of upper-crust impotence.
Predominantly, composer Michael Nyman’s Purcell-inflected accompanying score hones perfectly the Baroque decadence and essentially Greenaway’s inimitable work remains as aloof, indecipherable and tongue-in-cheek as it aims to be.