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The Belly Of An Architect

The Belly Of An Architect

By John Bleasdale • August 23rd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Hemdale Film Corporation

Original release: September 23rd, 1987
Running time: 120 minutes

Writer and director: Peter Greenaway
Composers: Glen Branca and Wim Mertens

Cast: Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webber, Lambert Wilson

The Belly Of An Architect

The 1980s were a fruitful decade for British cinema. The prestige outings of Chariots of Fire and Merchant Ivory – the Laura Ashley of filmmaking according to Alan Parker – vied with the commercial Hollywood triumphs of the same Parker and Ridley Scott. Art cinema was popularly dominated by two names: Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Greenaway’s feature debut enters neatly with The Falls in 1980 and arguably his masterpiece The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover rounded off the decade in 1989. He would make several more films, but the Eighties would be a high water mark of his cinematic output and The Belly of an Architect came out the height of his powers.

Brian Dennehy – in a career best performance – is the luminously Jamesian named Stourley Kracklite, a fish out of water American architect who finds himself falling apart in the oldest part of old Europe. Entering Italy with his unsatisfied young wife Louise (Chloe Webber), something his European hosts and rivals instantly latch onto, Kracklite is to oversee the celebrations honouring his favourite classical architect, Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Although a success, smug and a little too pleased with his own intelligence, Stourley Kracklite is also neglectful of his wife, paranoid and fearful that all his success is empty and perhaps based on bluster. The home he has designed for himself and his wife is criticised by his wife as being unliveable ‘two cubes’. There’s even something a little pathetic in his hero worship of Boullée, a largely forgotten figure, compromised by his influence on Nazi architect Albert Speer and when Kracklite starts writing him long self-pitying letters, there’s the sense that the two are linked as much by a sense of failure as by their shared vocation.

Stourley repeatedly signs his letters ‘architect’, tenaciously finding in his job a sense of himself, but the permanence which he seeks to construct in stone is constantly undermined by the impermanence of human attachment – as seen in the failure of his marriage – and ultimately individual life, as he becomes increasingly worried by a stomach complaint that seems to foreshadow something more serious than an American’s reaction to a Mediterranean diet.

The Belly Of An Architect

Greenaway – a painter by training – gives the architecture of Rome top billing. From the Piazza Del Popolo to the Pantheon, we are given a tour of classical Roman architecture, all to a wonderfully dynamic Nymanesque score by Wim Mertens. Sometimes the temptation to simply place the ever watchable Dennehy into a magnificently realised frame can threaten to capsize the plot, a tendency Greenaway even satirises in the film when a photographer/girlfriend dresses Stourley up in classical garb for a series of pictures.

And yet Dennehy’s performance and the wit of the screenplay keep the architecture of the film operating from a human perspective, and stop it from becoming an exercise in sterile visual quotation. Stourley’s unravelling, his decline – both emotional and physical – is genuinely moving, as when he spies his wife cavorting with his rival through the keyhole, an almost comically depressing moment. He is a man who fearing that he is dying, poisoned by his wife perhaps, is already cut off from the living: his attachment with Boullée also derives from the fact that Boullée is already dead and so there is also this sense of fellowship.

The future belongs to his wife and his young rival, the equally bizarrely named Caspasian Speckler (Lambert Wilson), the man who has also taken his wife. Art becomes an arid consolation in the face of fleshly dissolution. But it does also offer perspective. Rome is ultimately a city alive with death, from the Coliseum to the Roman Forum to the statues of emperors that the doctor uses to break the bad news, and as such it is a perfect place for an architect to go to die.

The Belly Of An Architect

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.

He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.

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