One could describe the ascension of British film director Peter Greenaway as a comet streaking across the cinema of the 1980s, culminating in the explosion that was 1989’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. But to understand that ascension, one needs to go back to Greenaway’s earliest features, the first two – The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed And Two Noughts – have just been released by Zeigeist Films on DVD.
Greenaway’s 1982 feature-length directorial debut – he cut his cinematic teeth as a cinematographer before directing a handful of short films – draws extensively on Greenaway’s background as an artist. Set in 1964 during the politically and socially turbulent William and Mary period of English history, The Draughtsman’s Contract concerns an arrogant artist (Anthony Higgins) who is commissioned by a noblewoman (Janet Suzman) to produce several drawings of her husband’s manor home as a gift. In exchange, the artist demands an exuberant fee as well as daily sexual favors from the noblewoman. Soon the artist finds himself enmeshed in a web of high society intrigues which culminates in accusations of murder from the noblewoman’s daughter (Anne-Louise Lambert), whom he has also taken as a lover.
Befitting a story of an artist, Greenaway has carefully composed each shot of the film as if it were a painting. With the exception of a few shots, the camera is steady, fixed and unblinking. Objects are symmetrically aligned and actors seldom move through the frame. Into this Greenaway mixes exaggerated wigs and costuming and statues that come to life, moving outside the characters’ periphery of vision.
As structured as The Draughtsman’s Contract is, 1985’s A Zed And Two Noughts is a bit more impenetrable, but just as visually engaging. Here, Greenaway continues his fascination with translating the precepts of painting to film, experimenting with lighting instead of composition. The story deals with twin brothers whose wives are killed in an auto accident in front of the zoo where they work. As a way of dealing with their grief the two become involved with the amputee, only-survivor of the crash and making high speed films of animal decomposition.
Regarded by some as Greenaway’s best film, A Zed And Two Noughts is definitely one of his most difficult films. The photography here is stunning, at times threatening to overpower the narrative. Greenaway also makes many visual allusions to the work of the Dutch painter Vermeer, but one can be at a loss to tie those allusions to the story. However, for the viewer who is willing to stay with the film, there are some interesting rewards.
Both discs have been remastered for this release and the picture quality is as good as it has ever been for a home video release of these two titles. The Draughtsman’s Contract picture quality slighted muted, though that is due to the film being originally shot in 16mm than anything else. Draughtsman’s Contract was previously released on DVD by Fox Lorber, but the restoration comparison on the new disc reveals that the picture quality is a vast improvement over that release.
Greenaway contributes well thought out commentaries to each film, highlighting both technical and aesthetic details throughout. Also on the disc are short video introductions to each film where Greenaway talks about his artistic intentions for the projects.
The Draughtsman’s Contract also includes several deleted scenes, while both discs include behind-the-scenes footage and each film’s theatrical trailer.