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Draughtsman's Contract, The (1982)


Main image of Draughtsman's Contract, The (1982)
35mm, 108 min, colour
DirectorPeter Greenaway
Production CompanyBFI Production Board
 Channel Four
ProducerDavid Payne
ScriptPeter Greenaway
PhotographyCurtis Clark
MusicMichael Nyman

Cast: Anthony Higgins (Mr Neville), Janet Suzman (Mrs Herbert), Anne Louise Lambert (Sarah Talmann), Neil Cunningham (Thomas Noyes), Hugh Fraser (Louis Talmann)

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In 1694, Neville, an ambitious young draughtsman, strikes up an unusual contract with Mrs Herbert, the lady of Compton Anstey Manor.

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Following Peter Greenaway's narration-led documentary, The Falls (1980), the BFI Production Board suggested that Greenaway made a film where people actually talked to each other.

The result, The Draughtsman's Contract, is not as different to Greenaway's previous work, however, as one might at first think. The draughtsman effectively acts as a traditional narrator when he outlines his drawing intentions (alluding to a form of fictional 'making-of' documentary), as do the party gossips at the very beginning of the film; they do not talk to each other, they simply talk. As in his previous films, Greenaway uses his creative works in other mediums to add to the overall text of the film, in this case the drawings as seemingly undertaken by the draughtsman.

The film's 17th century setting allows the exploration of the social and political structures of the time; the Married Women's Property Act hovers in the background. Indeed, despite the male ownership of both property and women, and despite some appearances to the contrary, it is the women of the film who consistently hold the upper hand, using sex and other ruses to control men and pursue their broader desires. The relationship between these ideas is explored in later Greenaway films, perhaps most explicitly in Drowning by Numbers (1984).

The formalised 17th century language of the film also allies well with Greenaway's own highly formalised language, and is frequently built around suggestion, at times becoming highly sexualised. This ambiguity and detachment in conversation has led some critics to refer to the film as a science fiction - possibly allied with the earlier Water Wrackets (1978).

It is an intensely detailed but coherent world that the film conjures, but despite the draughtsman's professed pursuit of objectivity - "I do not disguise or disassemble" - it is a made world, and one open to interpretation. Trees are subjected to grafting, the landscape to flooding, and all this is layered again through interpretation; witness another draughtsman, in the form of a Dutch child, and the very different drawing that he produces. Regardless of this, the act of witness is held to be paramount - due to all he has seen, the social climbing draughtsman, Mr. Neville, must be disposed of, beginning with his eyes.

William Fowler

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Contractual negotiations (3:49)
2. A snake for the orangery (1:40)
3. Accessory to misadventure (4:34)
4. Clues to a corpse (3:14)
Original Trailer (1:36)
The Restoration of The Draughtsman's Contract (2:31)
Greenaway, Peter (1942-)
La Plante, Lynda (1943-)
Nyman, Michael (1944-)
Channel 4 Films/Film on Four/FilmFour
Channel 4 and Film
They Started Here