May well be cinema’s first Restoration comedy-mystery. It’s a none too solemn, enigmatic tale of murder set in a great English country house in 1694, when morals among the newly rich were as loose as absolutely possible and manners were mad mannerisms of dress, speech and behavior.
Mr. Greenaway, whose only other films seen in this country have been avant-garde shorts, creates an extraordinarily detailed picture of a historical period, not as it was but as it is imagined by a somewhat surreal artist today. He’s also a wizard with a budget. Working with some $500,000 provided by the British Film Institute in association with Channel Four Television, he has made an astonishingly elegant film, and one that is as mind bendingly rich to listen to as to see.
To the film’s collection of schemers, dupes and delighted voyeurs, words are weapons and the complete sentences - in which the characters always speak, are battle plans. The screenplay is as dense with bossy epigrams as the magnificent English landscape is lush with foliage of every conceivable shade of green.
The film takes place in 1694, in the English countryside. A rich lady (Janet Suzman) hires an itinerant artist to make 12 detailed drawings of her house. The artist (Anthony Higgins) strikes a hard bargain. In addition to his modest payment, he demands “the unrestricted freedom of her most intimate hospitality.” Since the gentleman of the house is away on business, the lady agrees, and thus begins a pleasant regime divided between
the easel and the boudoir.
The movie advances with the grace and precision of a well-behaved novel. There is even a moment, perhaps, when we grow restless at the film’s deliberate pace.
The draughtsman demands perfection. There must be no change, from day to day, in the view he paints. He aims for complete realism. But little changes do creep in. A window is left open. A ladder is found standing against a wall. There are things on the lawn that should not be on the lawn. The lady’s daughter calls on the artist and suggests that a plot may be under way and that her father, the lord of the manor, may have been murdered. Furthermore, the artist may be about to be framed for the crime. As a payment for her friendship, the daughter demands the same payment in “intimate hospitality” as her mother. Now the artist is not only draughtsman but lover to mother and daughter and the possible object of a plot to frame him with murder.
There is more. There is a lot more, all allowed to unfold at the same deliberate pace. There is a mysterious statue in the garden. An eavesdropper. Misbehaved sheep. The raw materials of this story could have been fashioned into a bawdy romp like “Tom Jones.” But the director, Peter Greenaway, has made a canny choice. Instead of showing us everything, and explaining everything, he gives us the clues and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Mr. Greenaway recounts all this cooly, with an eye for detail as keen as the draughtsman’s, but also with a number of not immediately explainable images that are simply absurdist.
Mr. Greenaway is not Congreve, nor does he pretend to be. ‘’The Draughtsman’s Contract’’ is fun not because it is an imitation of anything, but because its sensibility is that of a 20th century social satirist. Mr. Greenaway is an original.
Until tomorrow: He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.