Few film directors can simultaneously claim notoriety for the shocking amounts of nudity, violence and scatology in their movies alongside allusions to Renaissance and Baroque painting and 18th century architecture. This fact makes the before-hand experience of watching anything by the enigmatic Peter Greenaway riveting in of itself. Whilst the quintessential British director’s most subdued film is also arguably his best, The Belly of an Architect mixes his unique method of formalism with a powerful central performance and fantastic shot-on-set backdrops of Rome. The BFI have done all they can to restore the original reel to modern quality in a Dual Format release, but what raffish relics of wear and tear remain only enhance the movie’s concept of the intangible past’s hold on us all.
The successful, if not actually well accomplished, American architect Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy) arrives in Rome with his much younger wife Louisa (Chloe Webb) to curate his dream project: an exhibition to the equally unknown visionary eighteenth-century architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. Kracklite’s life obsession with Boullée, signified by what he feels is a matched obesity, creates huge strains on his marriage, health and career. His wife feels drawn to his Italian rival Caspasian (Lambert Wilson), he can’t eat without throwing up and he’s forced to write postcards to his deceased idol to retain his sanity. By the end of the film he’s trapped in a hopeless battle to keep his exhibition, his marriage and even his life.
From the very beginning we feel as if the Italian benefactors, nay all of Rome, is against our protagonist. Part of this is accomplished via Greenaway’s direction and Sacha Vierny’s cinematography; rife with long, static takes, shot far from the subjects except only when it’s Dennehy’s character in the frame. The near countless references to art and architecture, as well as Isaac Newton (who’s historical discoveries were relayed in Boullée’s work) add that essential need for waffled interpretation e.g. I took Kracklite’s constant photocopying of Caesar Augustus’ stomach Andy-Warhol style, alongside his suspicions that his wife is trying to poison him with figs, to represent the fact he sees himself a copy of the man, though in an interview in the included DVD booklet Greenaway cites it as “a way of being inquisitive, just running the whole gamut of art on a photocopier”.
For its focus on French architecture, Italian history and even English currency a conventional film goer may mistake this as a ‘movie for stuffy people’. Whilst it is a stuffy movie from a visual approach, the human drama takes centre stage, with its memorable, 1987 Chicago International Film Festival Best-actor award winning performance by Dennehy anchoring a tragic story of obsession and deterioration. Particular praise goes to Kraklite’s drunken outrage at a restaurant in the film’s final act, one of the most morbidly hilarious scenes you’ll likely ever see, and supposedly one of the few times an actor in a Greenaway movie is given the freedom to improvise.
This particular DVD/Blu-ray release of the film also includes a 15-minute 80’s documentary directed by Greenaway titled Insight: Terrance Conran, which presents a portrait of the designer and entrepreneur. It’s far more dated than the main feature but if your appetite for the building of buildings has been wetted then this is a welcome addition.
The Belly of an Architect is a well rounded movie with very round buildings and a round main character. Those who got a kick out of the forced cannibalism of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover or the cinematic confusion (I mean…innovation) of Prospero’s Books won’t find a lack of skin here, only a lack of nasty things happening to it. That aside it’s a beautiful film in its exterior and interior, and despite a 15 certificate it elicits the same uncomfortable feelings as the rest of Greenaway’s canon, but constructed on a more human level.
Words> Graham Ashton