The Belly of an Architect
Reviewed in August 2004
Director: Peter Greenaway. Cast: Brian Dennehy, Chloë Webb, Lambert Wilson, Stefania Casini, Sergio Fantoni, Stefano Gragnani, Ricardo Ussani. Screenplay: Peter Greenaway.
Having looked forward to this movie for ages, I was lucky enough to see it in a gorgeous theatrical print, thanks to Cornell Cinema and its tireless curator, Mary Fessenden, one of the hardest-working women in Ithaca showbiz. Thanks to Mary, and to rep-house programmers everywhere who keep our movies playing on the big, beautiful screens they deserve!
Twitter Capsule: As ever, Greenaway's prodigious qualities give onto his ponderous demerits. Robust, ambitious, unwieldy.

Photo 1987 Tangram Film/Mondial; © 1990 Hemdale Film
Image reproduced from MUBI
Peter Greenaway must be the only filmmaker in the world who watches people having sex and is instantly reminded of geometry. It's quite a niche he's carved for himself, as the Cartesian diagrammatist of perverse desire, and it isn't one that some other artist is likely to usurp from him. Greenaway is sui generis to a degree that few other directors are, which means that he only has himself to compete with most of the time—so it's a pity that, much more often than not, he eventually loses these internal competitions. It still isn't clear that cinema is designed to accommodate his peculiar visions, though it's to his credit that he hasn't stopped pressing the medium to work for him, rather than lazily taking the opposite route.

The Belly of an Architect, released in 1987, hails from that period when Greenaway's personal project still looked like something that might transform the art. Seeing it again now, from the other side of 1999's chaotically irrelevant 8½ Women and, even worse, the film world's utter indifference to his current Tulse Luper Suitcases portfolio project, it's hard not to cackle a bit at the pomposity of Architect, which plays (like almost all Greenaway) as some kind of boastful manifesto: look at what I've gone and created, you philistines! I say that, and yet I'm glad Greenaway has been around, and I think the cinema would wither without such eccentric obsessives toying with its boundaries. More to the point, there's a good deal in The Belly of an Architect to relish, even if the piece as a whole eventually descends into the same hermetic serialism of motifs that has consumed most of his pictures. (The best of the lot, Prospero's Books and The Baby of Mâcon, smartly install the melancholy difficulty of endings and the cruel logic of serialism into the fiber of their constructions.)

Brian Dennehy stars here as Stourley Kracklite, a burly American architect traveling to Rome with his wife Louisa. He has arrived to design and orchestrate a giant exhibit-hall retrospective of the work of Étienne-Louis Boullée, an 18th-century French architect whom no one much remembers, especially in the snobby, complacent, Italy-for-the-Italians universe that Greenaway has devised as his tonal and physical backdrop. Louisa, a little bored with her older husband’s cerebral fixations, and a little piqued by his young, epicurean rival Caspasian Speckler (Lambert Wilson, the Merovingian of The Matrix Reloaded), comes by an honestly wedlocked pregnancy during the trip but uses her new condition as exquisitely surefire birth control during rowdy adulterous romps.

Kracklite can’t stand being cuckolded but, in a departure from other films with similar plots, Greenaway and Dennehy expose his anger as a forthrightly myopic and narcissistic jealousy. His feelings about Louisa and Caspasian are rarely as important as his feelings about himself—for this ballooning man, whose prodigious gut is starting to give him searing pains, is humiliated to be old, to be fat, and to be surrounded by Roman art and architecture whose perfect scaling and imposing musculature he has always admired. Sacha Vierny, one of the European cinema’s indispensable cinematographers, conspires with Greenaway to turn establishing shots and decorous inserts into the actual heart of the movie. Looking at the sturdily parallel columns of a Roman monument, visually cropped as an artwork of their own, or following the recurring symbolism of clean domes, virile statues, and dazzlingly flat Classicist surfaces, we not only absorb a palpable sense of place but we receive all of this, even when the montage doesn’t necessitate it, as though from Kracklite’s point of view. We feel his pitiful anger at being haggardly rotund amidst such graceful rotunda. Even his own patented professional rhetoric, constantly praising buildings for being “carnivorous” and “predatory,” sounds embarrassingly ironic once his gluttonous diet of meats has him lying on a hospital gurney, being readied for an intenstinal probe.

So finely attuned to shape, line, and contrast, Vierny’s photography and Greenaway’s authoritarian control essentially serve one guiding irony, but it’s a good one. Subverting or deepening the cliché about art that hails “from the guts,” The Belly of an Architect is all about the weird alchemy by which internal inspirations become huge, material spectacles which far outlive their progenitors. The architect is a speck of a thing compared to what he builds, and once he has died, he isn’t even that. The eulogized Boullée, whose own ill health impeded his productivity, had an even more bodily relation to his edifices: each one was a triumph of literally intestinal fortitude, and Dennehy’s fawning admirer soon finds himself addressing Boullée’s buildings as icons of the man himself, even scripting a series of postcards to the vanished artisan who suddenly seems resuscitated, ever-present. What comes first, the art or the artist? What comes last, if both endlessly signify the other? Many films founder in the attempt to probe such broad dialectics, but The Belly of an Architect thrives on them—pouring a foundation, too, for the organic speculations of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and for the dazzling preoccupations of The Pillow Book, which complements this film’s binary of inner and outer with a tone-poem to human skin, the thin boundary that separates the two.

All sounds pretty interesting, no? It is, but it’s also a little relentless. An intellect like Greenaway’s, motored by a style of self-gratifying gigantism, perpetually comes on too strong. Only one thing at a time can grow under the hot light of Greenaway’s obsessions, and so minor concerns like performance, pace, and dramatic subtlety get left by the wayside—and worse, Greenaway humorlessly implies that anyone who laments his omissions is necessarily reactionary, or just stupid. Capable of nuanced contradictions on the wider scale, Greenaway can be embarrassingly literalist in individual shots, and he makes poor Brian Dennehy grip his stomach and wince into the camera so many times that Kracklite’s plight becomes cartoonish. Louisa has the bad luck to be played by Chloë Webb, a member of that Karen Black class of interesting actresses who are titanically annoying when placed in the wrong context. Already he film, and not just Louisa’s husband, seems to feel that childbearing is a woman’s paradigmatic work, wheres a man's is to create great art, a thesis only confirmed by the scapegoating portrayal of Caspasian’s sister Flavia, an androgynous praying mantis of a person who takes self-serious photographs of every possible subject either before, during, or after she makes love to him/her/it. Greenaway, it seems fair to say, is great at thinking through some binaries, but gender is not usually one of them, and Webb, with her shrill mannerisms and Jennifer Tilly voice, simply isn’t equipped the way Helen Mirren so augustly was in The Cook, the Thief... of parlaying Greenaway’s harsh misogyny into playable acting points.

By the end of The Belly of an Architect, the film’s ideas are still interesting, but the places that give rise to them are a little overfamiliar, and the people even more so. Dennehy, as the script clearly hopes he will do, restores some badly needed power and danger to the flagging movie during an extended sequence in the last act, when Kracklite shows up to a tony trattoria wildly drunk and raging, Lear-like, against the dying of the light. Pity this isn’t the end of the picture, instead of the overly schematized, unintentionally laughable sequence that really does end it, where lots of the movie’s secondary motifs—Newtonian physics, the birth/death cycle—come back to roost.

All along, Greenaway can’t help viewing Dennehy’s architect with a certain pathetic sympathy, maybe the closest this chilly director ever gets to actual sympathy. A ravishing shot where Kracklite and Flavia seduce each other behind a white curtain, filmed as though we might feel their bodies if we touched the movie screen, reminds us with typically gorgeous over-emphasis that cinema, just like architecture, is being probed, honored, and occasionally sacrileged by this film. People often repeat the adage by which “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture,” as though the lunacy of both propositions is fully apparent, but The Belly of an Architect at least goes to show that you can, despite the odds, make a very interesting film about architecture. You can even approach the medium of film as though it is architecture, a gambit which few other directors (Welles, Resnais, Ruiz) have essayed so committedly as Greenaway. Trouble is, even if you succeed, you may wind up with a cold, impressive space where nobody feels at home. The Belly of an Architect is possibly this director’s most psychologically ambitious movie, but the more Greenaway moves from Kracklite’s belly to his brain, the more he seems to find hidebound banalities of aging masculinity. Kracklite is an Arthur Miller character in a baroque superproduction, and the disconnect never really gels, even as other details in the film are coming across very well. Greenaway has inimitable talents, but he doesn’t have the all-around gifts that allowed someone like Welles to handle multiple conceits at once, without flattening other parts of his movies into slavish service of same. Like the work of Boullée, nicely showcased throughout, The Belly of an Architect is bold and impressive but also a little dubious and, one fears, not quite as unforgettable as its creator might have hoped. B


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