FILM REVIEW: The Belly Of An Architect

Movie making is an expensive affair. It helps to have visually appealing locations, which is why any film made in Rome has got a head start. From Bicycle Thieves to The Talented Mr Ripley, from La Dolce Vita to, er, Hudson Hawk, the city of Rome – with its mix of medieval alleyways, renaissance palaces, baroque fountains and fascist architecture – has been used as a backdrop for hundreds of films. It’s a city I’ve only ever experienced in my imagination; I’m reminded that I need to remedy this situation whenever I rewatch Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect. 

Brian Dennehy plays the improbably named American architect Stourley Kracklite, visiting Rome with his wife to curate an exhibition on his hero, visionary 18th century architect Etienne-Louis Boullee’ – a real-life Frenchman who drew and designed many buildings which were never built. Kracklite encounters doubts and disinterest from his Italian financiers about the importance of Boullee’s legacy. Wife Louisa teases her husband that he himself has only made six and a half buildings, several of which are deeply flawed – personal digs that grow more vindictive as the narrative progresses. Suffering from stomach pains, Kracklite obsessively continues planning the exhibition, sending the now pregnant Louisa into the arms of manipulative rival Caspasian Speckler (Lambert Wilson). Beset by jealousy and paranoia – convinced his wife is trying to poison him – Kracklite begins to lose his grip on everything that is important to him.

Greenaway’s background is in painting – he studied at Walthamstow College of Art – and as a film director, he’s usually more interested in exploring aesthetic and philosophical ideas than feelings. There’s a level of detachment in many of his films which leaves me cold. The Draughtsman’s Contract ends with the draughtsman’s horrific murder (in the manner of a Jacobean drama) but it’s difficult to care about a character who is so selfish and arrogant. Film director Alan Parker said A Zed and Two Noughts should have been called ‘a P and two noughts’, and I’m inclined to agree; at nearly two hours long, Zed is a gruelling watch, featuring a rosta of characters who delight in casual cruelty. The twins around whom the story pivots are two of the most charmless individuals ever seen on screen. Best not mention the sickening time lapse photography of decaying animal corpses. It’s as if Greenaway wanted to test the limits of his audience; how else to explain the casting of ghastly, old school comedian Jim Davidson as a zookeeper? The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is an impeccably designed, similarly exhausting affair that revels in awful behaviour, mostly embodied in the terrifying shape of gangster Spica (credit where its due, Michael Gambon is brilliant in the role).

The Belly of an Architect, released in 1987 between Zed and The Cook, is a different beast entirely. Having read interviews with Greenaway, it’s possibly the only one of his films to contain elements of autobiography. Greenaway previously visited Rome on a promotional tour for Draughtsman, where he began to suffer anxiety induced stomach cramps. Greenaway’s father also died of stomach cancer around this period, at the age of 58. As with many Greenaway films, there’s a mathematical motif that runs throughout (the later Drowning by Numbers features a countdown from 100 to 1, with numbers cleverly hidden – in the manner of Where’s Wally – within the frame). With Belly, the number seven takes prominence: There are references to the seven hills of Rome, seven ages of architecture, and the seven iconic Roman buildings that supposedly influenced Boullee’, including the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum. Remarkably, Greenaway and crew were granted permission – a rare occurrence – to film inside the neoclassical Altare della Patria, completed in 1925 as an ostentatious monument to Victor Emmanuel, the first king of Italy, and which locals refer to as ‘the typewriter’ (or ‘the wedding cake.’) Belly succeeds on many levels, not least as architectural primer on the personalities who helped shape one of Europe’s most ancient cities.

The late cinematographer Sacha Vierny clearly knew something about photographing grand buildings, having worked on Last Year in Marienbad (apparently Greenaway’s favourite film, which is why he continued to work with Vierny). The camera is static most of the time, and there are no tricksy pans, zooms or tracking shots. The director’s painterly eye is present throughout; actors, objects and locations are arranged in such a fashion, one feels compelled to repeat watch certain scenes just to appreciate the visual precision.

Michael Nyman has scored the majority of Greenaway’s film but on this occasion, the director turned to composer/pianist Wim Mertens. The prolific Flemish/Belgian musician has never been short on ambition; Qua was a composition which stretched across a staggering 37 compact discs. His score for Belly comprises a more modest 8 tracks (American musician Glenn Branca, a contemporary of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, contributes two additional pieces).

I never knew what an Arpeggio was until I heard Mertens: ‘A chord whose notes are played or sung in rapid succession rather than simultaneously’ is a description which still does nothing to enlighten me, though I know how Mertens music makes me feel, and that’s  giddy with excitement. Tracks like ‘Birds for the Mind’, ‘4 Mains’, and ‘The Struggle for Pleasure’ sound like Bach on amphetamines. Then there is ‘Close Cover’, a delicate piano piece that aches with melancholy. This piece has surfaced on several chill-out compilations over the years; in fact it’s so beautiful, I arranged for it to be played at my dad’s funeral three years ago. The album – the only film soundtrack ever issued by Manchester’s Factory Records – is one of those rare scores that can be enjoyed independently of the film.

As Cracklite’s pregant wife, Chloe Webb, still best known for Sid and Nancy, makes a strong impression, as does Lambert Wilson as the slimy Caspasian. Cult Italian actress Stefania Cassini has some good moments as Caspasian’s enigmatic sister (she was also in Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Bertolluci’s 1900.) All the other characters tend to live in the shade of the bear-like Dennehy. The actor was a reliable presence in a lot of 80’s movies like Gorky ParkCocoon and Silverado. Seeing him in a British art film initially requires something of an adjustment but his superbly nuanced performance elevates the film to a whole other level. It’s one of those ‘role of a lifetime’ performances which should have been garlanded with prizes but was mostly overlooked (he did bag a best actor award at the 1987 Chicago Film Festival).

It’s hard to imagine a director as controlling as Greenaway trying improvisation but that is exactly what happened during one of the film’s final moments: after receiving the news that his cancer is terminal, a drunken Kracklite harangues a group of diners eating in front of The Pantheon. ‘I have a belly and so do you!’ he shouts at an appalled Italian woman, lifting up his shirt, and forcing her to touch his stomach. Chased by a group of curious onlookers, Kracklite dunks his head in a fountain, and collapses on the steps, struck down by searing pain. It’s one of those classic drunk scenes which make the hairs on your neck stand on end.

Greenaway professed to being both surprised and grateful to Dennehy for his performance; at the time he said he would be interested in working with the actor again, a collaboration that sadly never happened. Kracklite remains the most vulnerable, and emotionally engaging of Greenaway’s protagonists; the film’s tragic ending always moves me to tears. Does Rome offer a Stourley Kracklite tour? Maybe it’s time I finally found out.

The Belly of an Architect is available on DVD, released by the BFI

Review by Steve Timms

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