In many ways, The Draughtsman’s Contract resembles a puzzle book for intellectual aesthetes, set within the arch-controlled milieu of the Restoration period, with haughty aristocrats jockeying for position within the narrow confines of their carefully arranged social circles. A monstrously arrogant landscape artist, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), is instructed to create a series of drawings, from every conceivable angle, of the estate of the strangely absent Mr. Herbert, and as part of his arrangement he ensures that Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) agrees to comply with his every sexual request. With each passing day, Mr. Neville grows increasingly brazen in his amorous encounters and also draws in the Herbert daughter (Anne-Louise Lambert) as a casual lover. Eventually, our anti-hero realizes he may be part of an elaborate trick, when his drawings eventually begin to reveal that Mr. Herbert has been murdered and that the specific arranged objects within the pictures (where a carefully placed stepladder and some discarded clothing transform into Agatha Christie-style clues) seem to implicate the artist.
The story is told less through traditional cinematic storytelling (where close-ups reveal key information helpful to the viewer) than through the obsessive use of lingering long-take tableaus. If it feels like you’ve dived right into a painting, that’s because filmmaker Peter Greenaway was an art student before he became a filmmaker. In this first cinematic offering from this unashamedly art-minded director, he had not yet begun his collaboration with maestro director of photography Sacha Vierny. Draughtsman’s Contract lacks the distinctive color palette of his later work, where the lighting is reminiscent of his favorite painters (Vermeer and Rembrandt). Devotees of Greenaway’s body of work shouldn’t expect the sumptuous visual style of his later films (starting with his next picture, A Zed & Two Noughts). Newcomers, on the other hand, should ponder whether to go for this more humble offering or to dive into the deep end with Greenaway’s more esoteric, more stylized, and in my estimation, more fascinating later work. The Draughtsman’s Contract is a first, fledgling attempt at what he later perfected, but that modesty could be seen as a virtue, since there is indeed some form of narrative here instead of the nonlinear, compulsive list-making and categorization that drives some people crazy about his other films. There is, indeed, a story and a mystery here that prevents Greenaway from indulging in his sometimes alienating proclivities. But what seems like a game is actually a trap: The story marches forward like a death march and is resolved with merciless efficiency.