A wonderfully weird and chaotic movie from the wonderfully weird and chaotic mind of Peter Greenaway, The Draughtsman's Contract is a movie I watched twice, just to try and figure it out. Wonderfully twisted plot with plenty left unsaid and hanging in the air, it truly rewards multiple viewings. I originally wrote this on September 2, 2002.
The Draughtman's Contract is an intriguing, beguiling, confusing, and intricate drama of manners, set in the English countryside of the 17th century. Directed and written by the controversial Peter Greenaway, it is an early indicator of his brand of movie - sexy, brutal, dialog heavy and very watchable! A woman hires a draughtsman (an artist who specializes in buildings) to draw her mansion while her husband is away, as a present. The draughtsman gets involved in a sticky web of deceipt spun by the woman and her daughter, and in the end, gets his just desserts.
The movie opens at a dinner party, where all the main characters are introduced. Mr. Neville, played by Anthony Higgins, is a draugtsman of some renown and Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) wishes to get him to draw 12 pictures of thier country mansion. She can't afford him, so they work out a contract with extras built in; namely, she will trade sexual favours to Mr. Neville in return for the pictures. The party is shown in small conversational snippets, with the characters all dolled up in a typical 17th century scene.
Then they get to the mansion, where Mr. Neville proves to be an exacting taskmaster, both with his drawings and with his favors. Mrs. Herbert tries to back out, but cannot. Mrs. Talman, played by Picnic at Hanging Rock's ethereal beauty Anne-Louise Lambert, is Mrs. Herbert's daughter, who is married to a German dandy played by Hugh Fraser, who believes the English to be beneath him. Mr. Neville begins to notice some things of Mr. Herbert's that are in the scenes he is asked to draw (shirt in the laundry scene, a ladder leads to Mr. Herbert's room, boots in the meadow scene) and it is pointed out by Mrs. Talman that Mr. Herbert has gone missing and the information in the drawings might indicate Mr. Neville to be an accomplice. So she blackmails him into sexual favors!
Mr. Herbert's body is dredged up from the one pond where Mr. Neville was never allowed to draw, and it slowly dawns on Mr. Neville that he never was in charge, and rather was more probably being set up for a fall. When he returns a few days later after finishing the pictures, it is laid out before him how he had been used. He still doesn't see how deep he's gotten himself in, and he soon pays the ultimate price.
And yes, it is all that confusing! I watched this movie twice, although I probably let too much time go between viewings, and it still wasn't all that clear. The dialog is very dense and each word is crafted with the utmost care. Even when I didn't understand what was going on, it still was a pleasure to hear the repartee. And to add to the confusion was a strange painted naked man, who appeared at various times, like a garden imp who keeps getting into trouble. He even witnesses the dramatic final ending of Mr. Neville.
I wish there had been a director's commentary on this one, but the DVD itself was pretty barren. A filmography of the 3 main actors and Peter Greenaway was about it. The picture was good and the sound excellent, as was the score. Like I said, the dialog was great to listen to, even if it didn't always add up! I highly recommend a rental, but be sure to watch it twice.