UK / Italy, 1987
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 13 January 2010
Source MGM/UA DVD
With a characteristic blend of subtle wit and ribald innuendo, Peter Greenaway begins The Belly of an Architect with a moment of conception. Coursing across the Italian border in a railway sleeper car, titular American architect Stourley Kracklite makes love to his wife Louisa in front of a large window that frames the hilly landscape of Piemonte region as it zips past. “What better way to enter Italy?” Louisa asks rhetorically, to which her husband responds with an exclamatory sigh devoted to the “Land of Fertility.” And indeed, what better way to enter yet another of Peter Greenaway’s films about art, sex, and arcana, a film about both physical and artistic conception, about the process of natural reproduction and the process by which art reproduces nature.
In spite of its title, the film is not only about Kracklite’s round, dyspeptic stomach, which begins to deteriorate during the architect’s stay in Rome, but also about Louisa’s uterus as it carries their unborn child. The visual connections abound between these two bellies – one growing with fecundity, the other pinching and collapsing in on itself and its bearer – and rhyme with Greenaway’s other major concern throughout the film: classical and neoclassical European architecture.
Kracklite has been invited to the city in order to design an exhibition dedicated to the 18th century French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose work itself mimics forms found in the natural world. “His buildings were based on human anatomy,” notes one character, and at the end of the film, Kracklite’s exhibition includes what is presumably a quotation from the architect stating, “l’architecture c’est mettre en oeuvre la nature” (architecture is implementing nature). In this way, the massive domes and rotundas for which Boullée is known serve as iconic signifiers for Kracklite’s tumultuous belly, his center of gravity, which in turn visually echoes the mammoth sphere in the center of Boullée’s unrealized design for a cenotaph to Newton, which appears recurrently throughout the film.
Played with fire, pathos, and liberal punches in the nose by Brian Dennehy, Kracklite serves as one of Greenaway’s great prototypes of the beleaguered, consumed, and ultimately humiliated artist, antagonized by his benefactors and obliged into unholy agreements in order to further his aesthetic preoccupations. While the artist maddeningly seeks to pursue his interests, to preserve himself in his art, the malevolent forces of shrewd philistines and pernicious capitalists insinuate themselves into his life, his work, even his body (and that of his wife). Upon Kracklite’s arrival in Rome, he is immediately framed in one of Greenaway’s many ironic recreations of Leonardo’s Last Supper, eating lunch in a restaurant auspiciously located in front of Hadrian’s Pantheon. This will not be Kracklite’s last supper, but it signals that deceit is afoot, and soon the architect’s gorging and gustation, as well as the attendant expansion of his belly, will give way to indigestion and vomiting in response to the poison he believes has entered his system.
Conspiracy, especially that which is enacted against the free agency and creativity of an artistic figure, is a consistent theme in Greenaway’s work from The Draughtsman’s Contract to Nightwatching, and here deceit seems to lie in wait for the hubristic architect at every turn. The film toys with many potential villains: his Italian benefactors, who seem to mock him with their byzantine, quasi-fascist machinations, and even his cuckolding wife Louisa, whom Kracklite believes is feeding him poisoned figs, as the emperor Caesar Augustus’s wife did to him. (In a novel, if not wholly convincing bit of casting, Greenaway gives this role to Chloe Webb, who played Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy in 1986 and Danny DeVito’s erstwhile girlfriend in Twins in 1988.) But ultimately, Kracklite’s deterioration seems to be the result of his own obsessive ambition and literal self-consumption. His single-minded engagement with his Boullée project – a stand-in for all artistic endeavors toward immortality – blinds him to the literal process of reproduction underway in his wife’s belly.
The Draughtsman’s Contract1982
A Zed & Two Noughts1985
The Belly of an Architect1987
Drowning by Numbers1988
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover1989
The Baby of Mâcon1993