Dressed to thrill

There's a mystery at the heart of The Draughtsman's Contract - not just whodunit, but why nothing Peter Greenaway has done since is as good. Janet Suzman talks to Ryan Gilbey, and provides a few clues
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The Independent Culture

Peter Greenaway's name is likely now to instil mixed feelings in cinema audiences. Nostalgia for a time when British cinema could be cerebral and pretentious and free. Regret at a general falling-off in quality that would result in a film as bad as 8 1/2 Women. Hostility from those who stormed out of A Zed & Two Noughts. Apprehension at the prospect of the upcoming series of films, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, and accompanying CD-roms, guidebooks and bumper stickers.

Only one of Greenaway's features - The Draughtsman's Contract, which is reissued today in a new print - enjoyed the luxury of a critical consensus. Give or take the odd complaint about the film's archness, it was lauded to the rafters. When time travel becomes as ordinary as taking the bus, I shall nip back to 1982 to tell Greenaway: enjoy it while it lasts.

The film has its roots in the fierce heatwave of 1976, when the director, then a 34-year-old artist, avant-garde film-maker and former editor of documentaries for the Central Office of Information, devoted a day to the task of completing 12 drawings. He set out to quantify subtle changes in light and shadow on an Edwardian villa in Glasbury-on-Wye, with each picture drawn from the same vantage point. The following summer, Greenaway repeated the exercise, this time stationing himself before a Victorian house in Wardour near Salisbury, and incorporating a variety of perspectives across the dozen drawings. "There were entertaining distractions," he noted, "like breaking concentration to chase sheep. Like persuading interlopers to move out of the sight lines. Like permitting a child to take over the drawing. Like stopping to eat. The distractions became more interesting than the drawings."

Out of that experience grew The Draughtsman's Contract, a 17th-century murder mystery about an artist, Mr Neville, whose literal-mindedness prevents him from noticing that he is drawing himself literally, and fatally, into a corner. It's Blow Up with ink and easels in place of a camera. And you would have to be one of those viewers whom the critic Pauline Kael - virtually alone in reviling the movie - claimed was snoozing in the cinema not to have noticed the influence of Greenaway's favourite film, Last Year at Marienbad. It's there in the crisp topiary of the chief location, Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells, and the chain of cultivated enigmas. And it has been said too that Anthony Higgins, who plays Mr Neville, was instructed by his director to walk like Delphine Seyrig.

The Draughtsman's Contract was Greenaway's first narrative feature, but not his first full-length film. Immediately preceding it, and capping over a decade of playful and pedantic shorts was the not-so-short, BFI-funded pseudo-documentary The Falls, which took more than three hours to itemise entries beginning with the letters "FALL" in an imaginary telephone directory. Peter Sainsbury, then Head of Production at the BFI, confessed that The Falls, while acclaimed, "was a success only for a minority within the minority", and encouraged Greenaway to move in a more accessible direction. Perhaps we should all savour for a moment the idea of Peter Greenaway being urged to be more accessible. Then we should try to absorb the fact that he actually complied.

"A few requirements were laid down," said Sainsbury. "There should be a sequential narrative structure, and characters should speak to each other, rather than to cameras and microphones." Greenaway turned in a script, which the BFI co-funded with the fledgling Channel 4 to the modest tune of £300,000.

Janet Suzman was cast as the devious, regal Mrs Herbert, who hires Mr Neville to draw her husband's house in exchange for sexual favours. Her first impressions of Greenaway remain pertinent today. "He was distant," she tells me over coffee. "Rather pale. Caught up in his own mysteries. Not prepared to deal much with actors after the initial casting. He just wanted the body, the face, the persona. He wasn't a chatterer, not ever, which I didn't mind." About his talent Suzman is in no doubt: "daring" and "unique" are words she uses frequently about the film.

"The script was a doorstep," she recalls. "It thudded on to the mat. Very useful for standing on to paint the tops of walls." The critic Robert Brown claimed that Greenaway "cast the film by sending a whole load of actors the script and then asking them who did the murder. If they said that they didn't know, he gave them the part."

Suzman has no recollection of being interrogated about the plot. "But on one occasion during shooting, when the dialogue was going round and round like Michael Nyman's score, I did dare to say to Peter: 'Look, what is this scene about?' To which he replied: 'Your guess is as good as mine.' The atmosphere on set was always one of amused commitment. A sense of 'What are we in? But isn't it fun?'"

One of her fondest memories runs counter to the picture's reputation as a succession of unyielding tableaux. "Peter was always exquisitely prepared, but I remember a magical shot on a hillside when the sun retreated behind a bank of clouds - and he just kept rolling. I'd never seen that before. Faces went dark, but by the end of it we were in the sun again. That's the great cinematographer in the sky. Peter kept it in. And it was magical."

The premiere of The Draughtsman's Contract at the Venice Film Festival in September 1982 was a classic success story. "Whenever a beautiful shot came up," remembers Suzman, "the audience would cheer it like a goal at a football match." Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard called it "the most stunningly original film screened at Venice, or anywhere else I've been this year," and commended it, with a simile long since retired, for "twisting this way and that like a Rubik cube." Vincent Canby of The New York Times wasn't alone in cracking open a case of adverbs for the occasion, calling it "astonishingly elegant" and "mind-bendingly rich".

Greenaway was gobsmacked. "I thought I'd made an arcane, stylised English movie about English manners," he said after the film crashed into the London box-office chart at number three, snapping at the heels of E.T. and Gandhi. "I thought it would leave a lot of people out." Not a lot. But Kael rained on the parade in spectacular fashion, arguing that "[Greenaway's] camera is dead, and so are his actors." What appears lifeless to one viewer may simply be restrained to another. "He dared to be still, didn't he?" marvels Suzman.

The picture's in-built mysteries gave it legs. Who killed Mr Herbert? Who exactly sets up Mr Neville? Who does away with him? Six months after the picture was released, it earned a splash in the Standard, which revealed that the film had become a fully fledged cult: "Contract nuts seek one another out at parties or at work in a vain attempt to find one of their number who has come away from the film knowing who has done what to whom." The newspaper cold-called critics who had raved about the movie, and asked them to explain whodunit.

"I had a lot of theories at the time," answered Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times. "But it's a long time since I saw it and I don't recall them now." Chris Petit, then-film editor at Time Out and a friend of Greenaway's, was unforthcoming. "I didn't watch the film on that level," he said. The attention tickled the director, who displayed a lack of pomposity that would now be deemed uncharacteristic. "For God's sake," he said, "let's not run away with the idea that this is some subtle intellectual game. It's an entertainment." That may be the nearest we will ever get to hearing Peter Greenaway utter the words "lighten up".

The Independent was not even a gleam in the bottom of an inkwell back in 1982. But when The Draughtsman's Contract was first re-released in 1993, the critic Adam Mars-Jones decided in these pages that it was Greenaway's masterpiece "because he was still learning while he made it, and, when he had nothing more to learn - his product lost a dimension". Suzman concurs. "I don't know how pleased Peter is to hear that most people think it's his best film," she says. "Nothing else he did quite had that lightness of touch. I think people are great fun before they get grand. That goes for all professions. Use lawyers whose names are not yet on the notepaper, they'll always work well for you. With Peter you felt that he wanted very much for the film to work, which gave him this vulnerability visible to the naked eye. I always had a soft spot for him because of The Draughtsman's Contract, and I wish him well. But I think perhaps he has gone up his own fundament."

The Draughtsman's Contract opens today at the ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647)