Long before he became notorious for his groundbreaking social commentary The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, director Peter Greenaway was establishing himself as an arcane, avant-garde auteur. Fiercely independent, wildly inventive, and suggesting an aesthetic both logical and insane, he was a filmmaker failing to play by the rules. Yet, when looking back at his very early films, it is clear that what Greenaway was really doing was rebelling against the very idea of cinema itself. Beginning in 1982 with The Draughtsman's Contract and running through a series of artistically adventurous films, including A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect, and Drowning by Numbers, Greenaway became categorized as a risk taking rule breaker. Zeitgeist Video is now offering the man's amazing beginning works in fully fleshed out DVD presentations, and they argue for a longstanding desire to avoid narrative flow, a need to deconstruct storytelling, and a love of reinventing what makes up a viable motion picture. These movies champion Greenaway as a director of decided skill - and sly maverick subversion.
When Mrs. Herbert attempts to hire the famed draughtsman Mr. Neville to sketch her husband's estate, the artist initially rebuffs the lady of means. He plays incredibly hard to get, finally agreeing to take the commission if she will partake of his sexual desires on a daily basis. While she's repulsed by the concept, she enters into the contract - 12 drawings, the poses (and positions) chosen by Neville. The sudden presence of this demanding dandy has the entire household up in arms, including sly son-in-law Mr. Talmann, family friend Mr. Noyce, and Herbert's suspicious daughter. With the head of the household away on business, Neville takes over, ordering the staff and directing the precise dressing of each setting. But when little changes are made, unusual additions like a ladder, a man's slashed coat, and a pair of unclaimed riding boots, foul play is feared. Even worse, it appears that Neville himself may be the prime suspect in the disappearance of Mr. Herbert. In fact, the lord of the manor may have been murdered.
Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract is a masterpiece wrapped up in the most unusual of narrative contrivances. It's Blow Up mixed with Botticelli, a 17th Century murder mystery where the clues are buried in pencil sketches, where outlandish period garb and extravagant wigs hide the most corrupt comedy of manners. Using an actual estate (Grooming Place and its surrounding gardens) and a cast perfectly suited to the clipped quip tone of the script, the first time feature filmmaker here establishes the various thematic and stylistic elements that would come to identify his work. Often described as an aesthetic deconstructionist, using the forms of the past (painting, sculpture, agrarian arts) as a means of making peculiar post-modern statements, Greenaway gives away nothing here. This is a movie which offers a facile outer coating - the upper crust acting catty and conspicuous - to hide a more disturbing horror. Beneath the powdered and perfumed surface are dark sexual secrets, adultery, and the foulest of privileged passions - murder.
Divided into 12 sections (one for every drawing commissioned) and similarly bifurcated by the contrasting contract holders (first mother, then daughter) Greenaway sets up a plot that uses the repetition of place and person to begin the dissection. The opening party, where we are introduced to all the major players (and some important ancillary ones) gives us all the basic old world intrigue - property, inheritance, birthright, and bed hopping. During this time, we are witnessing the motive. Then the sketching schedule commences, and like any good deductive Q&A, the conversations between Neville and the characters unearth important logistical concepts like time, place, potential, and personality. The final six sittings provide the indirect denouement, the complicated conclusion that suggests killer, corpse, and the rest of the last act clarification - except, Greenaway is never that obvious. Instead, he keeps things so close to the cast's ruffled shirts and up their frilly sleeves that, when the tale is told, we're not quite sure about just what we've seen.
Avoiding many of the costume drama contrivances that make this kind of film falter and eventually fall apart, Greenaway relies on direction and acting to carry his concerns. For his part, the use of contrasts and static shots, the meticulous pencil strokes that make up each "crime scene photo" played off the gorgeous countryside and setting announce a filmmaker who knows how to balance flash with formalism. As big canvas cinematic starting points go, The Draughtsman's Contract is a glorious introduction. But the performers deserve mention for their part in the production as well. Anthony Higgins, fresh off his turn as Gobler in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is wonderfully wicked as Neville. Impertinent of tongue, a master of the retort and the regiment of drawing, he makes a perfect catalyst (and suspect). He's surrounded by well known English/Australian/South African actors, and together they help the exaggerated tone of the film fly by effortlessly. But this is Greenaway's show first and foremost, and what he accomplishes here is nothing short of magical. A whodunit that doesn't really care to answer the chief narrative question could end up a trying experience. Instead, The Draughtsman's Contract is a triumph.
It seems odd that Zeitgeist Films, wanting to promote its incredible effort in restoring and remastering this terrific title, would provide reviewers with a basic test disc from which to consider their results. It appears that the full blown digital presentation is offered - including the new look 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image - but without final product it's hard to give a fail-safe analysis. Things have been known to change between the making and the merchandising, and the same could happen here. Yet based solely on what was provided, the transfer looks terrific.
As for the sound, little has been done to the Dolby Digital Mono. Michael Nyman, famous for his work with Greenaway, scores The Draughtsman's Contract with a very meticulous and treble-oriented set of melodies, and the lack of bottom or bass is obvious in the sonic situation. Still, the all important dialogue is easily discernible and the conversations all come across crystal clear.
Thanks to the close participation of Greenaway in the restoration and packaging of his work, Zeitgeist delivers a truly amazing DVD. Beginning with a 10 minute intro from the man that covers most of the film's production history, to a full length audio commentary that highlights the different social structures and 17th century rules addressed, the director is a brilliant guide through his frequently frustrating work. Thanks to the context he provides, and the behind the scenes stories he tells, The Draughtsman's Contract becomes even more mesmerizing and multifaceted. The rest of the added content is equally enlightening. There are deleted scenes (very insightful), a glimpse backstage, including interviews from '82 with Higgins and costar Janet Suzman, trailers, stills, a demonstration on how the film was restored, and essays by the director and his cinematographer, Curtis Clark. Like all good digital bonus features, the material offered here truly supplements the main feature, and gives us a greater ability to appreciate what Greenaway created.
Instantly skyrocketing toward the top of 2008's Best of DVD shortlist, Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract is a stellar example of cinema as an artform. At this point, the only thing keeping this disc from earning the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Edition tag is the decision by Zeitgeist the offer this critic a "test sample" screener copy to evaluate. It's not a matter of materialism. Far from it. There's just no guarantee that what's present here will end up gracing the copy you get from your favorite distributor/B&M. As a result, the highest of Highly Recommended ratings is awarded to this undeniable masterwork. While Greenaway would go on to match the careful craftsmanship shown here - especially in Drowning by Numbers and the recent Nightwatching - this remains his celebrating starting point, the moment where he transferred his ambitions and obsessions into tiny celluloid slices. And it's a grand design indeed.