Long before he started trying to recreate books and hypercard stacks in cinematic form, The Pillow Book director Peter Greenaway still betrayed his fascination with categorization in every lush, grotesque feature he made. After two decades of documentaries and experimental films, he made the leap to narrative features with 1982's The Draughtsman's Contract, but the film's artificial segmentation and formal sense of organization still reflects his old obsessions, and hints at the more elaborate projects to come.
Contract is set in 1694 on a British country estate, where upper-crust hostess Janet Suzman commissions obnoxious artist Anthony Higgins to draw a dozen paintings of her estate, supposedly in order to please her estranged husband and pull him toward home. Unable to afford Higgins' high fees, she contracts to pay him in sexual favors, but he uses her so brutally that her daughter eventually intervenes with her own contractual offer. Like Greenaway's eventual breakthrough, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, Contract is sordid and gorgeous at the same time; its elaborate costumes and coifs and its beautiful landscapes stand in marked contrast to the characters' blunt brutality. But the costumes match up with the leaden, ultra-formal execution, which revolves around the planning, structuring, and creation of each of Higgins' drawings in turn, as well as the sexual act that accompanies it. Contract often feels like an inexact bridge between Greenaway's experimental films and his narrative period: The mysterious man posing naked in the garden, pretending to be a statue, feels as much like a symbol of the film's rigid, chilly artifices as he does like part of the story.
After a few years off for more doc work, Greenaway returned to narration with the even more subdivided feature A Zed And Two Noughts, in which twin brothers lose their wives in a car crash and become obsessed with death and decay. Like so many of Greenaway's films, Zed wallows in the graphic meatiness of bodies—naked lovers in bed, animals rotting in stop-motion, a woman losing her identity one limb-amputation at a time—but it finds beauty in bodies as well, particularly in the unforgettably eerie climax. Greenaway's first of many collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny is almost unbearably lovely in its painterly compositions and vivid colors, but Greenaway deliberately juxtaposes beautiful order and hideous rot to disturbing effect, and that's the simplest layer of his symbolism. Both films are too mannered to take in as straightforward narratives, but as a series of elaborately patterned, infinitely unpackable puzzle boxes, they feel like a training ground, both for Greenaway and for any viewers willing to follow him down his peculiar, complicated paths.
Key features: Deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage on Contract; informative Greenaway introductions on both.