Gifted British filmmaker fixes his sights on the US box office

I'm always impressed by the handful of filmmakers who seem dedicated to some personal, even outlandish, vision - and keep that vision alive in real ''movie-movies'' that reach out and communicate with wide audiences.

The best example is Luis Bunuel, who started his career with the strange dreamscapes of ''Un Chien Andalou,'' then stuck to his surrealist guns through dozens of features that have stirred and delighted millions of viewers around the world.

Another is David Lynch, whose bizarre ''Eraserhead'' introduced visual themes that later enriched his Oscar-nominated ''The Elephant Man.'' There's also Martin Brest, who explored similar ideas in the wacky ''Hot Tomorrows'' and the Hollywood hit ''Going in Style.''

The latest member of this select group is Peter Greenaway, a British filmmaker of unusual gifts. His new picture, The Draughtsman's Contract, should appeal to all sorts of viewers: mystery fans, history buffs, art lovers.

Yet it has strange byways, too. The elegant atmosphere is interrupted by nudity and bathroom humor that are sure to offend some people (the kind of thing that's absent, even in these brief views, from other Greenaway films), and flights of sheer fancy spring up now and then, seeming to veer away from the film's rigorous structure. It's an odd picture, for all its period details and classical plot twists. Those familiar with Greenaway's career will find in it much that's new, but also strong echoes of his earlier films - personal, idiosyncratic, even eccentric works.

''The Draughtsman's Contract'' takes place in 1694. It begins when a wealthy woman hires an artist to draw pictures of her estate as a gift for her traveling husband. The artist, who's also a scoundrel, insists on sexual favors as payment. This arranged, he starts rendering the house and grounds with proud precision. But distractions abound - from sheep cluttering the landscape to a seductress on his trail.

Bit by bit, the interruptions become disruptions. Ambiguities deepen into mysteries. Unexplained objects crop up in the draftsman's drawings, implicating him in a sinister scheme. Comedy and tragedy mingle as order and control threaten to crumble.

It's an engaging tale with a chilling conclusion. But storytelling is only one of Greenaway's goals. As he told me during a recent conversation: ''It's a film about representation and ways of seeing. It's about what the draftsman sees , what the camera sees, what the moviegoer sees. It has many levels and references. Some people feel it says more about literature and painting than about filmmaking, and I like that. . . .''

This talk about ''levels'' may surprise those who see the film as a mystery yarn in the Agatha Christie mold. It is that. But it's also crammed with the puzzles, allusions, artistic flotsam, and intellectual jetsam that have dotted Greenaway pictures for years.

Indeed, the real surprise is the film's traditional format. ''Some people in England think I've ratted out,'' Greenaway says. ''But my main concerns about aesthetics are still there. I've just clothed them in more conventional modes. It was a necessary step if I wanted to get greater credibility with larger audiences.''

In sum, Greenaway has tried to deal in popular terms with challenging issues. On the most casual level, the film joins ''whodunit'' formulas to jokes, romance , scenery, and intrigue. More subtly, it reflects a fascination with literary dialogue, painterly compositions, and complicated cinematic structures.

Greenaway's interest in these matters began when he was about 12 and decided to be a painter. But he was concerned that landscape, his first love, had been fully explored by earlier artists. Eventually he went to work for a film editor, deciding that cinema gave the means for a reconsideration of landscape - and for a marriage of art and literature, which gripped him equally.

Before long Greenaway made his mark with a string of stunningly imaginative but highly unorthodox films. ''A Walk Through H'' is a guided tour of a mysterious inner landscape mapped on a series of abstract paintings. ''Vertical Features Remake'' is a riotous parody of filmmaking and criticism, mingling exquisite landscapes and outrageous editing. The fictional ''Windows'' and the factual ''Act of God'' examine documentary techniques.

Most imposing of all is ''The Falls,'' a three-hour fantasy that reveals a post-apocalyptic world through 92 fictitious biographies.

In building his unique approach to film, Greenaway saw himself following ''the English tradition for the bizarre,'' citing such forebears as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. ''I share this interest in the weird, strange, unusual, surreal,'' he says. He also notes that the depiction of landscape is an English tradition in both painting and literature.

Like Stan Brakhage and a few other film poets, Greenaway is a self-confessed romantic. He shuns the extremes of romanticism, though, and tries to pin down his romantic urges with a hard-edged approach. His ''structural'' background gives a framework, he feels, for treating romantic landscape without falling into the excesses of some painting styles. Structural techniques also help him combine words and images with prodigal freedom. ''I was always a very literary painter,'' he owns, ''in the tradition where word and image are always equidistant and vying with one another.''

All the elements of Greenaway's odyssey are visible in ''The Draughtsman's Contract'' - in its exacting dialogue, its lush settings, its immaculate construction. Though the story is strong, what really matters is how the movie proceeds on its own terms, like the surging Michael Nyman music that courses through it.

Greenaway has changed a lot since his early days in film, when he wanted to discover ''what would happen if you chucked the narrative out.'' His next projects both have strong stories - the titles are ''Drowning by Numbers'' and ''A Z and Two Noughts'' - and he plans to film them as soon as funding (never easy to come by in today's Britain) can be found.

Also coming soon is a series of documentaries on musicians John Cage, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley, and Meredith Monk. When not actively involved on a personal project or feature, he earns his living by documentary filmmaking, which he thoroughly enjoys.

And after these efforts? It's hard to say. But chances are it will be something challenging, allusive, elusive. ''I enjoy complex films and artifacts, '' he says. ''Nothing is simple, after all. There are thousands of motivations for every act that goes into a work of art. . . .'' Big budgets are in - again

After the colossal failure of the colossally expensive ''Heaven's Gate'' in 1980, Hollywood began to think twice about the virtue of big budgets.

But moods come and go quickly in tinseltown, and sure enough, studio money is once more flowing like water. According to Variety, the show-business newspaper, two years of belt-tightening are giving way to ''the greatest spending spree for feature films since the 1960s'' - with some 70 movies now in production with price tags of $15 million or more, due for release over the next three years.

In practical terms, this reflects the money-slanted mentality that often prevails in Hollywood, with its belief that big investments are the surest way to big profits. When a low-budget smash like ''Rocky'' rebuts this idea, the lesson is generally remembered for only a few months.

In artistic terms, the emphasis on huge budgets can be harmful, because torrential cash flows and gargantuan production values can mask the inner emptiness of a screenplay, a director's vision, even an entire project.

That's one reason a ''Heaven's Gate'' could proceed through the long production process without anyone's noticing it was a bomb. And the same story is likely to be repeated somewhere along the line, if Hollywood keeps gearing up its moneybags without giving more profound attention to what's going before the cameras in the first place.

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