Sunday, April 8, 2012


Peter Greenaway, 1987
Starring: Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Sergio Fantoni, Stefania Casini

Though this is one of Greenaway's most acclaimed films, it is not one of my favorites. Ironically, the first time I saw it I suffered from a nasty bout of food poisoning and watched it three times in a row, because I simply could not do anything else. Chicago-based Architect Stourley Kracklite travels to Rome to build an exhibition for forgotten French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. He brings his wife Louisa, whom he neglects due to his obsession with the project and his increasing stomach troubles. He suspects she is poisoning him with figs, like Augustus's wife Livia was believed to have done so many centuries before. In reality, he has a terminal case of stomach cancer that comes to ruin his professional and domestic life. Louisa, who is newly pregnant, leaves him for his Italian exhibit partner, Caspasian Speckler. Speckler's charm and financial success allows him to eventually gain control of the exhibit, though he is stealing funds to rebuild a monument to Mussolini. As Kracklite's health deteriorates, he begins to write postcards to Boullée and sinks further into madness.

This wildly alienating film is worth watching for two reasons. First, there is an unexpectedly powerful, sympathetic performance from Brian Dennehy, whose character has a touch of Lear about him and struggles futilely against age, illness, and a sort of symbolic impotence. He fails at reproduction, creatively, professionally, domestically, and biologically. His wife's previous pregnancies have resulted in miscarriage and the current, healthy child will be raised by another man. He is left alone to constantly reproduce images of stomachs and statues on a photocopier.

The second reason to see this is for the always stunningly lovely cinematography by Sacha Vierny. The film is full of the traditional painterly tableau-inspired long shots Greenaway favors, as well as many scenes carefully framed by windows, doorways and impressive architecture. The rich colors and textures are balanced by constant images of photocopies, architectural plans and drawings. In much of the film the actors are crushed by claustrophobic shots of massive Roman buildings made of sepulchral white marble. As always, the colors and schematics recall Renaissance painters, but instead of being distractingly beautiful, the landscape feels cold and oppressive. There is also an odd biological symbolism with constant shots of stomachs, antiquated statues and smooth domed buildings that juxtapose Kracklite's sick stomach and his wife's pregnant one.

The Belly of an Architect shares some similar themes with earlier Greenaway films. There is a focus on food and the stomach, though this time the latter is in the forefront. There are many scenes framed around important meals and some are organized to resemble Da Vinci's Last Supper. There is the continuing importance of sex, death, pregnancy, legacy, art, ownership, and obsession. As in all of his films thus far, permanence and mortality play an important role in the plot. Visually, there is a barrage of still shots of photographs, letters, drawings, and architectural plans, representing the need to control and organize. Regardless of the setting, Greenaway's films are obsessed with order and symmetry and there is no exception here despite the beautiful Roman statuary and architecture. And as in all Greenaway's films, the soundtrack is lovely and fitting. Glenn Branca and Wim Mertens provide minimal, repetitive themes that cut back and forth between rich piano compositions and anxiety-inducing string pieces.

My biggest complaint are the performances. Aside from Dennehy, the other actors pale in comparison, particularly the insufferable Chloë Webb (Sid and Nancy). Between her awful accent, monotone style of speaking and limited dialogue, she simply cannot carry the role of Louisa. She has barely any scenes in the second half of the film, which is a relief. The other actors are given little screen time and few individualizing qualities. All of them are filmed in long shots, so it is occasionally hard to discern one black-suited, aged Italian from another. The pace can be plodding, with frequent repetitive blocks of xeroxed stomachs and Roman architecture. This is also one occasion in Greenaway's work where the long shots do not do him any favors dramatically.

Regardless of its flaws, The Belly of an Architect is still worth seeing, if only for Dennehy's surprising performance and, after all, was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. There is a serviceable MGM DVD that sadly doesn't hold a candle to the recent Zeitgeist releases. Shame they couldn't get the rights. The transfer does not seem cleaned up at all, which makes it difficult to get a close look at actors other than Dennehy and in darker scenes there is an unfortunate lack of detail. The sound is poorly mixed with the score drowning everything out on occasion. Luckily there is a BFI region 2 Blu-ray/DVD on the horizon and I would recommend waiting until this print is released in June, especially if you have a region free Blu-ray player.

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