The editors of the list seem absolutely determined to have two Peter Greenaway films on the list. In the latest edition, Drowning by Numbers was culled, and in its place we have The Draughtsman’s Contract, Greenaway’s first proper feature film. I’ll admit I was hesitant to get started on this one, mostly because Peter Greenaway is really really friggin weird. I guess I still wasn’t entirely prepared for his kind of weird, even after having seen three of his films thus far. That the Book calls this Greenaway’s most accessible film is a bit of a misnomer; I don’t know if I would call any of his films “accessible”, and that would apply to this one as well. Still, it was a very beguiling film, and even a good ways into it I was still unsure of exactly what kind of film it was trying to be.
The film is a period piece to obnoxious levels, taking place in the late 1600s, in the elitist of the elite classes, so expect pompous wigs and hairpieces to absurd complexity and a production & costume design that sees no limit. Mr. Neville is an artist, and a very arrogant one at that, who is contracted by a Mrs. Herbert to draft 12 drawings of her estate, for reasons unexplored. Part of the stipulations that Mr. Neville insists upon is that Mrs. Herbert sees personally to his “pleasures” while he stays at the estate to produce the drawings, which pretty much entails what would immediately come to mind. It is when the drawings are shaping up to be completed that Mr. Neville and several others make note of various objects that have found their way into the drawings, despite Mr. Neville’s explicit instructions that the spaces be kept clear, and which taken as a whole seem to imply that something wicked has happened to Mrs. Herbert’s husband. The film is labeled in several areas as a murder mystery, but I would disagree; that there is a murder and a mystery involved is hardly the film’s primary focal point, and only truly emerges at the climax of the film. The film up to then is a very strange period piece, but one that is very typical of Greenaway’s films as a whole, and as thus contains much of what he would later build his career on. Once again, he has chosen to shape his selection of shots in exact geometric placements, keeping the focal point of what’s on camera generally in the center of the frame rather than on the thirds, which is helped along by frequent usage of the square and rectangle in the framing itself. Greenaway’s propensity for having his characters talk on and on is also put to good use here, with the extensive vocabulary and speech mannerisms of the elite class depicted in the film.
The ending will more than likely leave you scratching your head, wondering what really took place during the course of the film, but that’s something that I tend to like about films that do it well; it rewards the multiple viewings that are undertaken to try and build a better picture of the film and its story, and if theres one thing that a film can do to win some big points with me, it’s to make the film easily and entertainingly watchable over several viewings. This was by and large the Peter Greenaway film that I enjoyed the most, probably for the reason I just explained. For that, I’m happy it did make the list, as given how strange a filmmaker (and/or person) Peter Greenaway is, I likely wouldn’t have tried this one otherwise. You might end up faring very similar to me. Give this a try, especially over the other Greenaway films on the list.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10