It seems odd in retrospect, but by the age of 18, I’d probably seen more films by Peter Greenaway than any other director, excluding Hitchcock. You have to cut your teeth somewhere, but Greenaway’s unique visual sensibilities were highly appealing, and more easily accessible in the UK than might be imagined. Broadcaster Channel 4, in the days before celebrity dating and nudist game shows became their stock in trade, used to produce films made by British film-makers, and rather than wait three years to see the results, these internally financed films went straight to early TX dates.
The takeaway was, before I was legally allowed to enter a cinema and see any of Greenaway’s work, I’d already clocked up The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect and Drowning by Numbers; quite a haul. A glance at Wikipedia to check the dates reveals this brutalist description of his visual themes; ‘costume and nudity, nature and architecture, furniture and people, sexual pleasure and painful death’. That shopping list works for most of his work, but Greenaway refused to be defined, resisted slipping into self-parody and had fallen out of fashionability by the 1990’s.
Rewatching The Draughtsman’s Contract on the BFI Player brought back exactly what I’d enjoyed as a youth; a striking symmetry of sound and music, Michael Nyman’s riffing on Purcell on the soundtrack, a deceptive tale of class, murder and deceit acted out by an impeccably dressed cast, positioned like dolls in a dolls house, in and around an impressively lush country pile. Anthony Higgins (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is the draughtsman, hired to capture 12 views of the fecund residence in question, Janet Suzman is the employer whose husband has gone missing. Who is the spider, and who is the fly? Has the draughtsman been set up to take a fall, or is he too busy availing himself sexually of his boss? And what’s with the living statue which seems to be wandering around the frame of the film?
A little reading suggests that explanations were filmed and cut; that’s probably for the best, since any flirtation with specific meaning would ruin this delightfully obscure film. Greenaway was interested in film as art, and so was I; The Draughtsman’s Contract is a neglected text, but one well-worth exhuming for those who can stay the course. To quote the title of one of Nyman’s memorable pieces; ’chasing sheep is best left to shepherds.’