Enigmas and Ellipsis – Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract

Enigmas and Ellipsis – Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract

Nov 23, 2022 | Blog

If loving going to the cinema has taught us anything (and in my case that’s probably a great deal) then one thing is obvious: movies, like all other art forms, can alter their meaning to audiences over time. Some films (like most westerns, for example) get better the older you get; films like The Shining improve with age, as if we finally caught up with what the director intended; some films were way ahead of their time (Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller, perhaps?) and some movies, which felt like a phenomenon when first released, now feel dated and silly (Titanic, anyone?).

Watching a film you have already seen before at the cinema may seem like a strange pasttime, but there are many advantages – the main one being that the experience is unlikely to be a letdown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film get “diminished” by watching it on the big screen (especially if it’s a movie you have only previously encountered on TV) and even if you know it very well, there’s always something more to be noticed or appreciated when the film is projected onto a screen, possibly in a new digitally enhanced re-release which may enable you to appreciate its original textures and colours or small details in the frame, which video or 35mm viewings did not do justice.

The fall out of Covid for cinemas has meant that, increasingly, “older” films are being dusted down and re-released to tie in with nominal “anniversaries” or events like Halloween – meaning that, in 2022, an otherwise fallow year, those with a passion for cinema have been able to sate our lust on films, ranging from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Taranatino’s Jackie Brown, through to Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Mike Hodges’ tough Get Carter to the schmaltzy The Bodyguard, Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather and even the entire cannon of Bond movies, if we scour the listings pages of our local independent and, even multiplex cinemas carefully.

The BFI must be given a “shout out” for a lot of these but we should also acknowledge that Park Circus are key players too and without their sterling efforts, we wouldn’t get so many of these wonderful opportunities (which we really shouldn’t pass up on).

Which brings me onto Peter Greenway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract from 1982, which is screening at the UPP in December in a brand new, fully restored print, to celebrate its 40th birthday.

There are a great many reasons why you need to see this one.

Draughtsman's Contract by Peter Greenaway

Firstly, it was a surprising hit for Greenaway back in the 1980s when it first appeared as part of the newly launched Channel 4’s remit to support British cinema. This is a genuinely British “arthouse” piece of work: intelligent, elliptical and pretentious. It’s also fun, puzzling, looks gorgeous (it was shot by American cinematographer Curtis Clark whose other claim to fame is doing additional camerawork on Al Gore’s influential climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006) and has a soundtrack to die for by avant-garde composer Michael Nyman. The soundtrack really helped launch Nyman’s career and he subsequently worked with Greenaway again on most of his key 80s films (A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) before hitting pay dirt with 1993’s The Piano (for Jane Campion).

Fans of his music should also check out the lesser known Wonderland by Michael Winterbottom from 1999: one of the best ever “London” movies, in this author’s opinion.

Hearing beautiful music in the context of a cinematic experience is an unheralded aspect of going to the cinema – and when the music is this gorgeous, that’s probably reason enough to give the film a look.

Greenaway prided himself on the idea of oxymoronically telling “non-narrative” stories and another reason to catch The Draughtsman’s Contract is because of its glorious use of enigmas. This is a film which shows and doesn’t tell – it needs your undivided attention and requires you to do some work, picking up the clues to its meaning and stitching it all together. As much as I like losing myself at the movies, I also want the films I watch to validate my commitment to them and my love of the medium. The Draughtsman’s Contract does this in droves. You’ll leave the cinema feeling challenged and vindicated – the film deserves the effort you’ll put into it.

The third reason to see it, is Greenaway’s fabulous use of locations (it was filmed in Kent’s Groombridge House) and the excellent costume design (by Sue Blane, who’d also worked on The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Finally, sultry South African actress Janet Suzman is the film’s leading lady. She had made several interesting appearances in 70s films including Nicholas and Alexandra, The Black Windmill and The Voyage of the Damned but had never been a huge star (choosing to focus her efforts on the theatre – she was married to Trevor Nunn throughout the 70s and early 80s). Suzman was 43 when she made Draughtsman and her décolletage plays a significant part in keeping our attention – adding an erotic frisson to a movie which is otherwise both formal and mannered.

So there you have it: The Draughtsman’s Contract has got almost everything you need for a great cinematic experience: sex and beauty; amazing camerawork; a complex, compelling whodunit structure and some fantastic music. It’s also “one of ours,” a rare British film which was a real one-off (although, to be fair, Greenaway got better and better at this kind of thing and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is probably his masterpiece).

What The Draughtsman’s Contract needs, therefore, is you – taking your seat at the UPP in December and either enjoying, for the first time, a film which genuinely defies categorisation or, if you’re like me, a film that you know you didn’t fully appreciate when it came out but which you know, instinctively, will be an outstanding experience seen for a second time on the big screen.

See you there.

The Draughtman’s Contract is showing on Sunday 4th December (15:45) and Monday 5th December (18:00). Book your tickets by clicking here.

Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.

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