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03.12.08

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Phaedra

The Draughtsman's Contract/A Zed & Two Noughts;

One disc each; Zeitgeist Films; $29.99 each

By Richard von Busack


In time, the most stratospherically falutin' avant-garde becomes nostalgic, even quaint. Peter Greenaway's first two major films now seem distanced, theatrical commentaries on the class war. The struggle may be the same, but the crisp diction is a reminder of the barbaric riches of the 1980s. Almost simultaneously, Godard was making Passion. In the Godard, we see a similar attraction and repulsion to classical art and the rich who were privileged to gaze at it. But Godard is a voluptuary. Greenaway's nudes are animals who have been plucked or skinned of their clothes. In The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), a revenge melodrama is played out in Baroque double-domed wigs. The setting is an English country estate of the 1690s, troubled by great anxieties for an heir apparent. The lady of the house, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman), is herself beyond the child-rearing age. She barters her body for the services of a self-important artist, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young cavalier of the old regime—let's suppose that's what Greenaway felt like in Thatcher's Britain. Bits of English history, such as the death of William III, and the fruitless multiple pregnancies of Queen Anne, are like half-heard conversation in the background. Modern concerns of filthy lucre, property and snobbery burn through this film. Arch and diffident as it is, The Draughtsman's Contract sucks you through in its pomp, its circumstances and its S&M-flavored sex. We watch Mr. Neville, for instance, using a pair of shears to cut the laces of a lady's corset, like a man shelling a lobster. A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) is rougher going. It is that old story in the British art-film market: the financial disappointment that follows a surprise hit in America. Brian and Eric Deacon star as Oliver and Oswald Deuce (the double-oughts in the title), twin zoologists and zoophiles. Both are widowers, after their wives perished in a car that collided with an egg-bound swan. The surviving driver—the gorgeously accented Andréal Ferréo—soon takes up conjugal duties for the brothers at the luxury Zoo Hotel. Meanwhile, at the nearby zoo, unfortunate events occur, all the better for filming corpses being devoured by insects to a cheery theme called "Time Lapse" by Michael Kamen. Zoo turns out to be "Ooz[e]" backward: the Deacons make a noteworthy sacrifice for their art in one of cinema's great slime baths. The film makes its oblations to that patron saint of the paralyzed filmmaker, Vermeer ("the first cinematographer," says Greenaway, quoting Godard in one of the extras). It's hard to forget Pauline Kael's comment on Draughtsman's Contract: "Pitched higher than a dog whistle." In his own phylum as a filmmaker, Greenaway seems to descend from Cocteau and Ken Russell; his lineage leads to today's dog-whistle virtuoso Matthew Barney.


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