The actors in the insufferably stilted British import "The Draughtsman's Contract," now at the Key, flail each other with such overwrought nasty epigrams that it would be fitting if every last scene ended with someone caroling "Touche'!"
A stickler for esthetically disagreeable formalities, writer-director Peter Greenaway insists on framing his vicious repartee within deliberately static compositions, often exhibiting a tell-tale visual hint: frames framed within the frame.
The conceit isn't terribly original or subtle, and perhaps nothing lends itself to pictorial symbolism as tritely as the frame-up plot. When the heartless, snotty conversations and would-be enigmatic still-lifes begin losing their novelty interest, what emerges is "Body Heat" in a pretentiously exaggerated Restoration drag.
The ostensible year is 1694 and the setting a country estate where an impertinent young painter and draughtsman named Neville (Anthony Higgins) consents to complete a dozen drawings of the buildings and grounds while enjoying the grudging sexual services of the resident noblewoman, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman).
We're supposed to believe that the sexual perks are written into Neville's employment contract. He takes advantage contemptuously, obliging Mrs. Herbert to submit to an implicitly revolting series of physical indignities to accompany the interminable verbal insults. As the splendidly sunny days and obscenely sinister nights accumulate, Neville is drawn into a second liaison--and a second weirdly compromising contract--with Mrs. Herbert's restless daughter, Mrs. Talmann (Anne Louise Lambert), the wife of a Dutch snob.
Unfortunately, there's nothing of erotic, social or psychological substance to be clever about. Neville is simply getting set up to take the traditional fall, and the combination of his initial hatefulness with his emerging gullibility is scarcely adequate to create suspense or anxiety about his fate. In this context it's a case of good riddance to privileged rubbish. Here's a typical Greenaway zinger, addressed by Mrs. Talmann to her spouse: "When your voice is as coarse as this rug, Louis, you sound as impotent by day as you perform by night." Maybe my ear isn't tuned finely enough for such frequencies, but isn't this line of chatter rather more illiterate than scintillating?
Although Greenaway affects to be an ostentatiously stylized filmmaker, specializing in the epigrammatic exchange and the epigrammatic image, he's severely limited in both ear and eye.