The Draughtsman's Contract
Reassessing Peter Greenaway's 1982 art film
The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)
In late seventeenth century England, draughtsman Richard Neville enters a contract with a Mrs Herbert to draw twelve views of her house and garden in return for £8 and sexual favours. Objects mysteriously placed in the locations Neville is drawing - a slashed jacket, a ladder to an open window - begin to suggest to Neville that Mrs Herbert’s husband has come to a sticky end. When Mr Herbert is found drowned in his own moat, a plan to frame Neville for his murder becomes apparent.
A review of a film
“Picasso. I hate him. But you’re not allowed to. Ahhh, I hate him. But you can’t. Cubism… I fucking hate him. He’s rotten in the face cavity… I should be kinder. He did suffer a mental illness. Picasso suffered from the mental illness of [pause] misogyny … Smarter men than I am say he wasn’t a misogynist. They’re wrong. He said ‘Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.’ Cool guy. ‘The greatest artist of the twentieth century’.”
Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’ (2017)
It’s difficult to come out as a person who ‘hates’ a piece of art. Not common-or-garden art - Duran Duran’s ‘A View to a Kill’, say, or Ken Follett novels; that’s fine. But Art-with-a-Capital-A: if you make a case for hating a piece of that, you risk marking yourself out as a Faragist or a Daily Mail reader or a ‘my five year old could have done that!’-er; an unsophisticate, a rube, a dullard. You’re open to the charge that you haven’t understood, that you’re taking it all too literally.
My mother, who had a mind like a razorblade and taught me about feminism, loved The Draughtsman’s Contract. She loved allusion and intellectual puzzles; she taught English literature; she was a fan of Blake and Donne, and an avid participant in word games. After watching The Draughtsman’s Contract she mulled it over and then announced she’d worked it out; she’d cracked the code. (She never told me what the answer was. This is one of the problems with dead people; you can’t ring them up and resume conversations when you suddenly develop an interest years later.) She loved poetry, whereas I can’t bear it. I like it when people say what they mean. My mother usually did. So here goes.
I hate A Draughtsman’s Contract because it exhibits a deep, violent and totally unconscious misogyny. I don’t give a shit about the puzzle and I don’t give a shit about the artistry. Let’s spell this out, because - astonishingly - I haven’t read a single piece about The Draughtsman’s Contract that mentions it: the sexual servicing demanded by Neville’s contract is rape. Throughout the film Neville rapes Mrs Herbert repeatedly, and (from the viewer’s perspective) explicitly.
This is not framed within an understanding of Neville as a violent, manipulative man who loathes women. It’s a minor character note; he’s horny, not hateful. The film - and every single critic who describes it as ‘erotic’ - finds the rape morally equivalent to Mrs Herbert’s scheming: the yin to its yang, the Sooty to its Sweep.
This is not a film about violence. When murders occur the camera shies politely away. The rape makes no sense as a plot device either, introducing a series of bewildered questions in the viewer’s mind (why did Mrs Neville agree to this term in the contract? If the plot is about procuring an heir, why is he raping the post-menopausal woman while having consensual sex with the fertile one? Why is everyone standing around allowing all the raping to happen?)
I hate to be anachronistic, but this is fucking unacceptable. If you’re minded to defend it, ask yourself why Mrs Herbert has to be shown vomiting and crying, pleading and broken, when the plot-neutral and genuinely erotic alternative of enthusiastic participation was available.
It’s true that our understanding of coercion and consent has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. In the early ‘80s the idea of sexy women being forced to have sexy sex because of some hellishly over-engineered plot device was as common as Carry On; there was an expansive appetite for watching women have unwanted sex. Even as late as 1993 a torrent of top Hollywood talent appeared in Indecent Proposal, which had a similar premise to The Draughtsman's Contract (and I bet Greenaway hates it when you point that out which is why I’m including it here because good god Peter Greenaway can fuck off). Sexual coercion was a thrilling game, and men in England and Wales were legally entitled to rape their wives until 1991.
But this - the different times, the different morals - is no excuse here, because Mrs Herbert’s distress is lovingly emphasised and the entire narrative motor of the film drives us towards the conclusion that Mrs Herbert’s distress and unhappiness are just deserts for her selfish machinations. She’s all the things the draughtsman (and Peter Greenaway when he made the film) are not: she’s old, she’s powerful, she’s English ruling-class. She is manipulative, intent on advancement, and mean to the family retainer who is in love with her. She is, quite literally, asking for it; she agreed to it, in writing, she signed her name, the clue is in the title.
Mr Herbert has to be shown vomiting and pleading to be released from the contract because she is being punished in a way we are invited to see as righteous. Above all else she is being punished for remorselessly pursuing her own interests, the one thing women must never do. This is relentless, lingering, sadistic anticipatory corrective rape. (In a crowded field of enraging creative decisions, the lingering is the worst.)
I hate The Draughtsman’s Contract. I hate it, and you can’t make me like it. But what I hate even more is how many recent reviews on modish cultural websites enthusiastically accept the ‘erotic’ reading. Whatever has changed in our understanding of rape and consent, the new generation of critics - plenty of them female, and most of them identifying as ‘feminist’, just as my mother did - still think old, powerful, rich bitches deserve the kind of punishment that only a real man can deliver.
“When I began my career 20 years ago, my favourite comedian was Bill Cosby. It’s healthy to re-assess, isn’t it?’
Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’ (2017)
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A review of an art film
A work of art is a contract between the artist and the audience. Unlike the contract of the title, viewers are active participants in the contract, free to reinterpret its terms and renege on it as they wish.
At one point Richard Neville, the Draughtsman, becomes obsessed with a painting he finds in the house, trying to puzzle out its meanings as he casually rapes Mrs Herbert. The painting is Januarius Zick’s Allegory of Newton's Theory of Optics, thick with contemporary allusions and esoteric symbolism entirely opaque to a modern observer. It presents a puzzle - like the film, we are given to understand - and one to which the intended solution can only be unsatisfying, as its significance and relevance became hopelessly obscure long ago.
But the contract between the audience and the art endures: it does not recede in the same way the symbolism does. The audience makes the art as much as the artist. There can be no anachronism in our response. Our understanding of the art is moulded as much by our own context as the artists’ intention is by theirs.
Indeed, one of the key themes of the film is that the artist does not fully know what he does. Neville insists he is only drawing what he sees: “I try very hard never to distort or to dissemble”. But in fact he deliberately shapes what is before him to match what he wants to draw, clearing the gardens of people and herding sheep into place. And even when he has all as he thinks it should be, he does not see what he sees, the clues that are set out in the landscape for him to depict. Stubbornly gullible, he does not perceive the reality that surrounds him.
And if the film might be, as Greenaway suggests, better called A Filmmaker’s Contract, then we might assume it shows us what he did not intend, just as Neville draws a murder he cannot see.
One reading of the film, for example, is that it is intended to be a critique of male creativity, presented here as intrusive and controlling. Much is made of the gardens, which the aristocratic men lavish with attention at the expense of their wives. Nature is set in order. Exotic fruits are uprooted from the colonies and grown under glass in rainy England. Neville rails against the Garden of Eden, Paradise, for not having orderly manmade pathways. In this reading, his demand for sex is acknowledged as rape and is shown as being the price of - and a of a piece with - his art: it is a deliberately violent and unpleasant metaphor.
If you incline to this reading though, you have to also acknowledge its parallel reflection: that the creativity of women is purely ‘natural’. Which is to say, unthinking, unskilled, unintentional. Young Mrs Talmann’s playing at the spinet is dismissed as being like birdsong - in other words, it is instinctive rather than crafted - and then dismissed as possibly not having happened at all. Men represent active control, so women must represent passive fecundity. Where women have agency, it lies in scheming for the making and taking of life. Just as Neville’s drawings contain the clues to an unseen villainy, so the film contains the clues to the background cultural misogyny of the ‘80s.
And the film is very ‘80s. Its period setting makes it look terribly New Romantic, like an Adam Ant video is being filmed just out of frame. Michael Nyman does an amazing job of finding the Purcell in Kraftwerk and turning it back into triumphant, pulsing parping, like The Penguin Cafe Orchestra playing a Prom. It's so arch, it’s practically a viaduct, one those bits of echt Roman architecture with which the formal gardens are decorated.
About this point in the decade people suddenly started to use the word ‘pretentious’ a lot more. It was meant as an insult, a way to curb flagrant intellectualism or aberrant good taste. A Draughtsman’s Contract is very pretentious. The original three hour edit was cut down to around 100 minutes and that missing hour or so must have contained most of the comprehensible plot. The film becomes an enigma in a garden, just like Zick’s Allegory.
Take the naked man dressed as bits of scenery who keeps hopping into the corners of frames and adopting statuesque poses, like a bucolic Bez. He’s never explained, rarely alluded to and his role isn’t clear. Is he a metaphor for how the upper classes of the period treated their workers like bits of scenery? Is he the masculine spirit of the gardens? A fool? A figment of the audience’s imagination? Pfft. Explaining him would be to unfairly trammel the audience; it would be nannyish hand-holding.
The trouble is that the film retains bits of plot, like the clothes strewn about Neville’s landscapes. But they have no more in them than those clothes. Indeed, the clothes are the discarded remnants of plot, the clues to the suggested murder of Mr Herbert. A detective story with no detective and no story is an irritating thing. It’s also, as art, a delightful idea, Pretentiousness is not necessarily bad. The word was everywhere because the early ‘80s was very pretentious indeed, thank goodness.
The film is full of Germans and Frenchmen pouring scorn on Richard Neville in particular, and British art in general, as an inherently ridiculous idea. The British don’t do art: they do bad food and good sitcoms. A Draughtsman’s Contract is determined to give the lie to this assertion, to produce a British art film unlike anything anyone else was doing. The elliptical scenario, the frames within frames, formal gardens and formal poses, the ticking, minimalist music and the frothing, maximalist clothing: a thing uniquely of its place and time.
They don’t make art films like this anymore. British films are now mostly cargo cult gangster movies and low stakes whimsical larks with Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton. The development of the summer blockbuster and the mainstreaming of ‘indie’ movies under Miramax and Harvey Weinstein has narrowed the opportunities for art cinema. Ironically, it was killed off by film-makers who behaved as Richard Neville does: controlling, bereft of imagination, casually and hideously abusive of those around him.
For more ‘80s arthouse cinema:
This is brilliant, and why I love reading your publication. I realize when I read your reviews how art films of the 80s served as the lifeline out of my less than sophisticated world, into a place more exquisite and thoughtful. But so often, the art films were as crude and weird as the world I wanted to escape, probably more so.
To go back in time and review the world with adult eyes and with the help of critics who are not invested in clever tricks to disguise their sycophantilism (sycophant + infantilism) so they may achieve status without losing access, is helpful to reconsidering the touchstones I used to help me shape a view of the world I thought would be seviceable.
Bertolucci was gross. Polanski was gross. Not just gross, but terrifying. I never could understand why no one else saw it, but I was told I was responding to their works like a rube or a priss, primarily by my male college professors or my fellow male students, that I just ended up confused.
Bertolucci ruined The Sheltering Sky, a book that I found spoke beautifully to the despair of alientation and existentialism. He ruined it by sticking his dick in it. That's how they always ruin something beautiful. It's the same mutated gene that drives men with money to want to build an outlet mall on the rim of the Grand Canyon (yes, that is a decade+ old fight here in the States): the mutated gene to dominate and ruin rather than find dominion and peace with decay.
Excellent review! Just discovered your publication and started perusing the titles of your articles. I’m Gen X as it gets. I don’t know about the UK, but here in the States my birth year falls at the very trough of a “baby bust”-- there simply aren’t very many people my age, which makes these takes by someone who shares a cultural landscape all the more compelling.