"The Draughtsman's Contract," a British mystery full of priss and vinegar, is a hard one to swallow.

In this drawing-room exercise, the leading characters -- repugnant prigs and snots of the upper classes -- prance about in powdered wigs, one indistinguishable from the other. Star Anthony Higgins is recognizable only by his long black wig and a nice pair of boots.

As Mr. Neville, an up-and-coming painter, he secures a contract with Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to draw her husband's estate, gardens, statues, walkways and adjoining pastures. (Mr. Herbert is thought to be out of town on business.) For 12 drawings, he is paid a small stipend, fed and quartered and allowed access to Mrs. Herbert's "person." Mrs. Herbert is sexually demeaned off camera to such a degree that she vomits her foie gras into a very nice china bowl on camera. Oh, those gentry.

That's not to say that director and writer Peter Greenaway has been entirely tasteless. Tedious to the max, yes. But devoid of taste, no. "The Draughtsman's Contract" is a visually rich work, well-appointed and lavishly costumed, with pastoral photography by Curtis Clark. It's simultaneously a historical chronicle -- including a couple of real knee- slappers about William of Orange -- and a treatise on the domestic travails of 1694, down to the plumbing puns.

Greenaway, an avant-garde filmmaker, is excruciatingly smart in "Contract," his first linear narrative. His dialogue -- sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing -- is a veritable fruit cocktail of symbolism, what with the lengthy discourses on pomegranates, plums, pears and so on. And Greenaway's structure is clever, though surreal. He allows a mystery to evolve in the draughtsman's renderings, though never all that clearly. Curious clues indicate that misadventure has befallen poor Mr. Herbert. Neville will be accused of foul play by Mrs. Herbert's daughter (Anne Louise Lambert) unless he signs a second contract with her. He is then sexually abused to the extent that he's forced to take a bath in nothing but his cocked hat and several shirts -- they were into the layered look in those days.

Meanwhile, the drawings go on and on. They show Mr. Herbert's boots in the sheep meadow; his shirt over a bush in the garden; his jacket in the laundry; his saddle here; his breeches there. Finally Neville draws himself into a corner and all is resolved, though not necessarily solved, by burning out his eyes and tossing him in the moat.

Witness to it all is a living statue (Michael Feast), who climbs down off his horse and smashes himself in the face with a split pineapple. How witty. How Dole. THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT -- At the Key.