Peter Greenaway is as art-house as a British director can get with his use of mise-en-scene, set designs, stories about troubled artists etc. I have been avoiding his recent films. Many say that his strongest period was in the 80s. From the 1990s I enjoyed Eight and Half Women (1999) but I struggled with Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996) which I could only manage a few minutes of, I will no doubt return to those ones in the future. I re-watched his second feature The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) last night, it is set in Jacobean England in 1694. The film begins with aristocrat Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissioning draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce thirteen drawings of her estate on her behalf of her husband for £8 per drawing. The contract also states that Mrs. Herbert will fulfil Mr. Neville’s sexual requests. Mrs. Herbert’s daughter Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) is married to a German (Hugh Fraser) who is somewhat irate with the presence of Mr. Neville.
Greenaway has referred to the film as a semi-autographical story about him challenging himself to produce drawings of a similar English estate. Born in Wales in 1942, Greenaway was raised in London and was educated at an arts school where he intended to be a painter. To this day he is heavily influenced by Dutch painting so much so that he left England for Amsterdam in about 1984. Neville’s drawing is Greenaway’s.
I felt more challenged to keep up with Greenaway’s dialogue which is witty and often dry to superb effect. An example being when Mr. Neville subtly berates Talmann for his support of William of Orange’s victory over Ireland (my home country) in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was a Protestant victory. Talmann goes as far as to adopt his nephew after his sister converts to Catholicism and move him from Germany to England. Talmann also has numerous reservations about England.
There’s a man painted as a statue hired possibly by Talmann who parades the grounds, he is a haunting presence, at one in close-up I thought it was Greenaway himself, what a thought! Michael Nyman’s score is based on some of Henry Purcell’s, some of the grounds for the drawings where given specific, like the now famous and extremely uplifting ‘Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds’. Nyman was a regular collaborator of Greenaway’s until 1991 when they had a falling out.
The film becomes a cunning murder mystery. Greenaway often frames ambiguous conversations in wide shot for we are to decide who to believe in the matter. I would guess that the film is shot entirely on location in Kent where Greenaway has great creative use with camera pans and lighting in the darker scenes. Mr. Neville’s treatment of Mrs. Hebert during the sex scenes are revolting bordering on rape. Mr. Neville’s purpose in the film seems to be to simply exist; delve in luxury, transcribe it to paper and pontificate on English life and counterpunch with Talmann’s often hilarious ramblings. The film’s finale echoes The Devils (Russell, 1971) with society’s clash with an unwanted outsider to their norms. Raymond Durgnat wasn’t too impressed with the film he briefly wrote about it on two occasions for the Monthly Film Bulletin.
“But it’s tainted by the same disease: a crudeness of polarity which the mainstream dramas continually nuance. Dramatic structure is dialectic. Greenaway must fill in with a nonsense plot and lots of pseudo-aristo insolence and wit. (Durgnat: 1984)
I don’t agree that the plot is nonsense it simply lays ground for an outsider to be trampled about by an establishment which he cannot defeat in spite of his high intelligence and wit or lack thereof.
Durgnat continued in 1985 ‘Alas, its negative aspects—finicky formalism, dramatic grossness, political stereotyping, and boring agitprop—are the hallmarks of most BFI productions.’
I agree about Greenaway’s use of dramatic grossness (which lives on from first frame to last) as for the political stereotyping it is definitely part of the film’s charm and humour. Perhaps many think that Greenaway sits at home writing his dialogue whilst constantly sniggering to himself, it could well be true for his 80s features. Elvis Mitchell commented in 1997 that Greenaway makes films that alienate audiences. Greenaway himself has defended such remarks by saying ‘it’s wholly arrogant to assume you can film to please everyone, the best thing you can do is to make the film you want and hope like-minded people will like it.’ Greenaway insists he is a stickler for tight dramatic structure in his scripts. His film’s certainly have a uniqueness to them. And by the way, Peter Greenaway was inspired to be a film critic after reading Raymond Durgnat’s pieces in Films and Filming! Greenaway wrote some criticism which he decided was unreadable.