“Jealous? Of his youth and waistline, maybe,” answers the naked, pot-bellied man to the woman lying across crumpled sheets. Emptied suitcases from a recent train voyage clutter the floor of their cavernous room. Books and loose papers scatter tabletops. With a pained cry the man grabs at his bulbous gut.
It’s the first time we see Stourley Kracklite’s bulging stomach in The Belly of an Architect (1987), but far from the last. Over the course of the film, it will evolve into an object of obsession—tapped, inspected, photographed, scanned via copy machine and compared against the stomachs of Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome who was poisoned by his wife Livia, and Boullée, a French architect (and recurring invisible presence in this film) who succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The physical decline and mental deterioration of both of these historical figures mirror in the American architect’s state as he loses his grip on reality and faces his mortality in the golden streets of the Eternal City.
In interviews, filmmaker Peter Greenaway acknowledges his disdain for narrative structure. Cinema, in his opinion, should be left to run free. “The story’s not important,” he explains in a fascinating interview available online from BAFTA. “What we remember and what we’re engaged in is a connection between happenstance, performance, color-coding, perhaps a piece of music—something only cinema can reproduce.” Despite this disdain, his films still contain a narrative spine, and The Belly of an Architect’s isn’t too obscure to trace.
Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy) is an architect of renown in the States. He’s returned to Rome with his pregnant wife Louise (Chloe Webb) to supervise and launch an exhibition honoring the long deceased, little-known architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. The project seems doomed from the start. Investors, scholars and co-organizers are skeptical. There are whispers that Boullee isn’t worthy of a showcase and, even worse, that he was admired by the Nazis, who aimed to emulate his neoclassical style. Unfazed, Kracklite forges onwards, convinced that his hero was a misunderstood and overlooked genius. This exhibition will show the world.
As the looming deadline approaches, a mysterious pain begins to pulse from inside his viscera. It doesn’t help matters that one of the exhibition’s leading organizers—the villainously-named Caspasian Speckler, played by a sharp-tongued and sneaky Lambert Wilson—is sleeping with Kracklite’s wife. The suspicious architect begins to draw parallels between his life and that of Augustus, whose wife fed him poisoned figs. Searching for meaning as he faces his mortality, Kracklite wanders through Rome on a search for meaning.
Greenaway’s decision to cast Dennehy (his biggest on-screen role to date was the sadistic sheriff in First Blood, 1982) is inspired. To see this enormous American from Chicago go to pieces as he staggers through Rome in a despondent, death-drenched haze feels like something out of Thomas Mann. The actor’s time in the theater translates well to Greenaway’s style of filmmaking, which favors extended takes of long shots so that figures are often lost in cavernous rooms or dwarfed against mammoth structures. Yet, Dennehy gets some of the film’s only close-ups. As the film progresses, he carries his abdominal pain like a stab to the gut. Sweat pours off his white-stubble face and soaks his shirt as Greenaway sends him up and down endless flights of stairs (“One is always ascending or descending when in Rome…”). One of the film’s best scenes finds a drunk Kracklite interrupting diners in a piazza and urging people to touch his protruding stomach. Dennehy once remarked that while he had a number of movies to his name, this was his first “film.” You believe every second of his performance, which stands as one of the greatest in Greenaway’s canon.
A filmmaker of oft-described “paintings with soundtracks,” Peter Greenaway’s work exists in its own realm. He spins art and science into a filmic tapestry, combining Humboldt’s organization, Rubens’s lighting and Breughel’s details. His frames burst at the seams with visual information stacked on separate planes: a discarded wine bottle in the bottom corner of the foreground, a framed cross-section tacked to the wall in the middle distance, a cat’s cradle of scaffolding in background.
Food plays an incredibly prominent role in his work, and there’s an undeniable phenomenological element at play. To see the white-icing cake in the first few moments of The Belly of an Architect is to taste the crumbly sugar. To see the figs in the bowl as Kracklite screeches in pain is to imagine swallowing the fruit’s stem. I can think of no other filmmaker whose work is so deliciously present and painful.
While his early short films (among them Windows, 1975, and A Walk Through H, 1979) exhibit his love of lists, cataloguing, science and architecture, it was Greenaway’s collaboration with cinematographer Sacha Vierny in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that brought his style into focus. Vierny was a prominent figure in the French moviemaking scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s, shooting for the likes of Luis Bunuel (Belle de jour, 1967) and Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961). A meticulous master of the craft, he employed tricks of the trade and daring experimentation to create unshakeable images. In the same interview with BAFTA, Greenaway recollects the cinematographer outlining staircase edges in chalk to make them appear in low light, lighting vast rooms with only candles and using his encyclopedic knowledge to bring out the visual differences between vermillion and crimson.
While impressive in its vision, The Belly of an Architect doesn’t show off Greenaway and Vierny at the height of their visual collaboration. That honor goes to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1988), a disturbing take on late ‘80s Britain that finds a violent London dripping in neon greens, blood reds and pearly whites. But The Belly of an Architect, which arrived a couple years before Cook, shows director and DP sharpening a vision as they turn the camera on Rome and bring the Eternal City’s messy meeting of architecture, anatomy and history to light. Add Dennehy to the mix and you have a strange brew beginning to boil. It’s a film borne at the intersection of contradictions, and it emerges as a stunning portrait of a man raging against his life, calling to the past for answers and receiving nothing but silence.
by Thomas Davant