The theatrical debut from one of Britain’s most commanding and controversial auteurs arrives on Blu-ray in a breathtaking 4K restoration
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was a monumental film for me–Peter Greenaway’s film was a provocatively sensual epic through human depravity and cultural appreciation, one that served as a hell of an introduction to the British auteur’s esoteric, deeply immersive, and rigorously experimental filmography. Today, much of Greenaway’s filmography has been challenging to come across in the States, with much of it relegated to out-of-print DVDs of now-dubious quality. However, thanks to the efforts of the British Film Institute, much of Greenaway’s work has been intensively restored–and Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber have acquired a handful of these viscerally effective new presentations for US audiences eager to discover these challenging and spellbinding works.
Chief among these new releases is Greenaway’s theatrical debut, The Draughtsman’s Contract. Set in 1694 Restoration England, the film follows the toxic relationship between Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman), the wife of a wealthy estate owner, and Robert Neville (Anthony Higgins), an egotistical and lecherous draughtsman (architectural drafter). Mrs. Herbert’s impotent husband is well known among the British aristocracy for caring about his sprawling manor and its gardens far more than his own family; in an attempt to rebuild her relationship with him, Mrs. Herbert is determined to hire Mr. Neville to create 12 intricately-detailed drawings of various angles of the estate. Completely disinterested in anything beyond his own intellectual or libidinous curiosity, Mrs. Herbert and Neville enter into a contract for his employ that not only includes room, board, and a sizable payment for his work, but also sexual favors that Mrs. Herbert must grant to Neville upon the completion of each drawing.
However, as Neville further antagonizes the members of the household–from Mrs. Herbert to her daughter, Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert), and her snobbish German husband (Hugh Fraser)–he stumbles upon another secretive aspect of the Herbert estate. Stray clues have appeared amongst Neville’s chosen landscapes, including a ladder propped against a window, a shirt tossed amidst some trees, and riding boots abandoned in a meadow. Here, Greenaway’s film devilishly shifts from a lurid period drama into a far more sinister and intriguing register; amidst its litany of artistic and thematic symbolism, The Draughtsman’s Contract aims to be an ancestor of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. Each clue in Neville’s drawings may point to the covered-up murder of Mr. Herbert–and those who wish to keep such matters buried may now be drawn to place suspicions on Mr. Neville himself.
Greenaway’s love for intricate detail in each of his frames finds its origins in this debut feature. Evoking baroque paintings lush with thematic or emotional suggestion, The Draughtsman’s Contract hides many of its elusive answers within stray details lurking at the edges of what we can see…while showcasing the lurid and depraved behavior such an era sought to repress. For all of its exacting replication of Restoration-era life in Britain, Greenaway revels in the provocative actions of the characters who must do whatever they physically or emotionally must in order to maintain illusions of social etiquette or status. Woven within such static imagery and frenzied emotion are vast libraries’ worth of symbolism pulling from centuries of literary or artistic history, each providing intriguing clues to the motivations of both Greenaway and his characters. It’s a testament to Greenaway’s early command as a director that he pulls off such elaborate, head-spinning tapestries of dense referentiality and potentially repulsive human behavior–all to reveal just how much beauty and brutality anyone is capable of regardless of their stature in society.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is a fantastic debut film from Greenaway whose ambiguous approach to its mystery and myriad details lends itself to rewarding repeat viewings, especially in this vibrant restoration by the British Film Institute.
Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films present The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1080p in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 2022 4K restoration by the British Film Institute. The restoration is accompanied by a 2.0-Channel DTS-HD Master Audio track, also restored by the BFI. English SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film.
Curtis Clark’s lush, painterly cinematography is vibrantly restored in this new release. Natural and manmade textures are beautifully rendered, from polished wood interiors and elaborate wigs and costumes lit by candlelight to the lush greenery of the estate’s exteriors. The image is free of print damage while retaining grain levels that lend a welcome depth to Clark and Greenaway’s deliberately constructed tableaux. The opening scenes, set in claustrophobic vignettes featuring the film’s lead characters, have a warm candlelit softness that directly contrasts against the sharp black shadows that permeate the edges of the frame, which gives way to clearer imagery with greater depth of field as the film continues and the central mystery deepens. The 2-channel surround track places Greenaway’s witty dialogue and Michael Nyman’s thrumming score front and center, with occasional sounds of nature on the sonic periphery yet never intruding on these main elements. Dialogue is crisp and distinct, while Nyman’s score creates a propulsive sonic landscape from period-inspired compositions and modern synths.
- Commentary: A 2003 archival track featuring writer-director Peter Greenaway. Greenaway conducts an academic yet involving guide through his debut film, noting crucial decisions during production that served his exacting vision yet remained honed to the practicalities of a short shooting schedule, as well as further explanations for some of the film’s more obscure historical and thematic elements. Of particular focus are historical contexts for the film’s Restoration-era setting, which carries weight on the characters’ relationships and motivations that may go unheeded by modern or non-British audiences.
- Introduction by Peter Greenaway: A 2003 archival introduction to The Draughtsman’s Contract by the film’s writer-director, beginning by Greenaway’s recollection of how he began his transition from the art world into filmmaking through the British Government’s Central Office of Information, his creation of mock-documentary The Falls and other TV films, leading to his seizing the chance to create a theatrical film on the behest of the British Film Institute.
- Short Films: Four original shorts by Greenaway are included–Intervals (1969), Windows (1974), Dear Phone (1976), and Water Wrackets (1978).
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage: Five minutes’ worth of BTS footage of one of the film’s climactic scenes featuring Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, and Anne-Louise Lambert, in addition to on-set interviews with Suzman, Greenaway, and Higgins.
- Deleted Scenes: Just over ten minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, including Neville’s absurd search for the right chair in which to do his sketching, Noyes’ cheeky tale about a lord and a cure involving Watercress, Neville inquiring Virginia about the mysterious death of Mr. Herbert, and Neville impatiently waiting out a spot of rain on the estate.
- Interview with Composer Michael Nyman: An except from a 2002 National Film Theatre interview, Greenaway’s regular composer discusses with David Thompson how he began his collaborative relationship with Greenaway, and his stylistic influences on The Draughtsman’s Contract.
- Restoration Trailer: A modern 2022 trailer for the BFI’s restoration of the film.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.