The Draughtsman's Contract


I had for a long time resisted the idea of the classic European art movie, which, as I saw it then, was too much related to the business of writing literary scripts, processing narrative in predictable formulaic terms, narrowing down the filmic vocabulary, and obeying all the orthodox narrative verities, but I was persuaded, indeed challenged, to create a film world where the characters no longer talked directly into the microphone and the camera, as in the earlier film-essays, but to one other. The result was The Draughtsman's Contract. In a way I had not reneged on previous preoccupations. Here was formalism of another kind, using the stiffness and theatricality and artificiality of Restoration drama, using elaborated spoken texts that often, but never completely, threaten to defy comprehension because of their extended conceits and indulgent word-play, and using music that always announces its self-conscious presence as though it was a concert piece existing on its own terms and not merely fulfilling the obligations of illustrative film-musak.

In a way The Draughtsman's Contract was Vertical Features Remake with actors. And with its excessive straight-jacketing of the English landscape, it was another catalogue movie, but this time with actors walking the world, but actors deliberately behaving like statutes or mannequins, marshalled into a strict regime of times and places. The time is 1694, the subject is a conspiracy of murder, more Patricia Highsmith then Agatha Christie, the characters are effete provincial aristocrats, the ambience bitter and sweet. Sexual exploitation is paramount. A draughtsman demands sexual favours in return for practising his art on a country-house; a contract for twelve imaginative couplings with the mistress of the house for twelve prosaic drawings, both to be taken at his predatory pleasure and with an eye to his rigid timing. We believe the draughtsman is in control and we watch his progress of gross sexual exploitation with some respect, for he is an unapologetic immoralist, he is handsome, well turned out, a disadvantaged outsider trying to get inside, and an artist of some talent if not a huge imagination. But the movie takes a reverse turn half way through and the predator becomes the victim, quite how and why, if not already guessed in a plot of women holding onto hereditary in a household of virtual eunuchs, is quickened in the last minutes with the freely commissioned thirteenth drawing and the thirteenth copulation. The artist is not employed afterall to draw but to sire. His prowess as a stud is more understood and valued that his prowess as draughtsman.

It is a movie of Catholics and Protestants, interiors and exteriors, manners and snobbisms, insiders and outsiders, and the various manipulative equations of sex and money and power and art, played in an almost colour-coded idealised English Wiltshire landscape of white, black and green. It is of course a fiction, but 1694 was the year of the first Married Woman's Property Act, the formation of the bank of England and the year of William of Orange's Protestant consolidation of anti-Stuart Catholic Whiggery, a few short years after the Battle of the Boyne. The world in England had changed. Modern history begins. But, entertaining, and hopefully as educative as this might be, it is all really an elaboration of the film's original premise which is - should an artist draw what he sees or draw what he knows? Sight and knowledge are not at all the same thing. Seeing and believing. Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see. The eye is lazier than the brain. Because of such contradictions and inadequacies, the draughtsman is framed, and in both meanings of that phrase. And because of the film's ubiquitous optical-device, a frame on an easel, and because of the obsessive framings of the movie-camera itself in making the film, we are framed too. And we know that cinema itself is a framing device in both meanings of the word.

Perhaps with profit the argument that seeing and knowing are not the same thing, should be always applied to cinema. And in the end The Draughtsman's Contract perhaps ought to be called The Filmmaker's Contract. What is the profit to a filmmaker, if he only films what he sees and not what he, and also his audience, undoubtedly know?


The Draughtsman's Contract