I re-watched and reviewed Peter Greenaway’s 1982 period mystery movie quite recently, but we go again, the BFI’s blu-ray double disk edition was not something to pass up. I’ve previously related my personal history of watching this lush, hypnotic film regularly; while a high-definition version of a Super-16 film might sound like a dubious prospect, the skilled use of natural light and timeless locations means that The Draughtsman’s Contact looks rich and lustrous as never before. That’s ideal for a rare film that is inspired more by paintings that cinema.
Fresh from his iconic role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Anthony Higgins plays Neville, an upwardly mobile draughtsman, working on set of commission for the married Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman). Mrs Herbert comes appointed with a magnificent country house, played by Groombridge Place in Tunbridge Wells. Twelve pin-sharp accurate drawings of the house are to be created, twelve sexual assignations are to be exchanged. Neville is in conflict with the posho circle around Herbert, but when her husband is found dead, Neville’s relationship with Virginia takes a turn…
This is a comedy, in a dark sense, not a Confessions of a Randy Draughtsman way, but more in terms of British historical introspection; Greenaway rips into the extreme tension between Protestant and Catholic in the enclosed society of the seventeenth century. An intertwined class war is vicious and brutal, and there’s no melodramatic escapes to dilute the point about the savagery of the rich; when the tide finally turns on Neville, he’s in the middle of making a witty comment about his hat when the first blow comes in. The class conflict theme that later featured in The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and her Lover is seen here as an interloper attempts to use their social position and gets put in his place; several key episodes of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man depict the same scenario, a particularly British Icarus fable.
Rather than seem like a prude after my trashing of 1978’s The Playbirds, it would also be worth focusing on the way sex is handled here. Like the violence, it’s largely off-screen, but there’s a fetid, musky air about the film that’s matched by the director’s penchant for large bowls of fruit. The use of sunlight, inside and outside the house, is refreshing, and in blu-ray quality, you can actually feel the light change as the clouds pass over. The presence of a living statue, never explained, which seems to wander around the background of scenes, adds a layer of mystery that remains when the scrupulous plotting of this elegant morality play ends.
There is, legend has it, a longer cut of the film, but the ten minutes of deleted scenes only reveal one particularly notable addition; single shots that thematically tie the demise of two characters together. Greenaway’s commentary is wildly knowledgeable and his insights into his own creative process are direct and unpretentious. Listening to him talking about his surprise at being hired to make ‘experimental film’ is a good use of anyone’s time.
- Presented in High Definition
- Audio commentary by Peter Greenaway (2003)
- Introduction by Peter Greenaway (2003, 10 mins): the director discusses the genesis of The Draughtsman’s Contract, his creative choices and the film’s central themes
- Visions: A Film Comment by Angela Carter (1982, 21 mins): the novelist’s contemporary TV review of The Draughtsman’s Contract
- The Guardian Interview: Michael Nyman (2002, audio only, 7 mins): the composer discusses his work on The Draughtsman’s Contract
- The Greenaway Alphabet (2017, 60 mins): Saskia Boddeke’s deeply personal portrait of her husband Peter Greenaway, his art and his relationship with his daughter
- H is For House (1976, 9 mins): an early short film by Peter Greenaway
- A Walk Through H (1978, 42 mins): Greenaway’s short depicting the symbolic journey of an ornithologist through a mysterious bird-filled country
- Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981, 15 mins): Greenaway’s profile of the fashion designer
- Interviews with Janet Suzman, Peter Greenaway and Anthony Higgins (1981, 5 mins)
- Behind the scenes footage (1981, 5 mins)
- Deleted scenes and outtakes (1981, 11 mins total)
- Original theatrical trailer
- Restoration trailer (2022)
- Image gallery
- ***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with a new Director’s Statement and a 2004 essay by Peter Greenaway; essays by Simon Barker, Robert Brown (from Sight and Sound, Winter 81/82) and Charlie Bridgen; notes on the special features and credits
RRP: £24.99 / Cat. no. BFIB1475 / 15
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