Wednesday 2 January 2013

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

I first discovered the films of Peter Greenaway when I was at university, and quickly embraced and devoured 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover', 'The Draughtsman's Contract' and 'A Zed and Two Noughts' (1989, 2 and 5 respectively).  They were strange films, full of astonishing images, rather extraordinary scripts, Michael Nyman's pulsing, repetitive, slightly baroque music and all-round slightly too much sex and nudity (generally functional rather than salacious or enjoyable for its participants) for my prudish tastes.

It's been increasingly rare since then, to get my hands on a Greenaway film I haven't seen.  When I found no delight in 'The Pillow Book' (1996) or '8 1/2 Women' (1999) I worried all the good ones were gone.  'The Belly of an Architect', though, hails from the 1980s, the seat of Greenaway's greatest glories.

Peter Greenaway trained as a painter, and tends to fill the frame
with symmetries, geometric patterns, well-chosen colour.

'The Belly of an Architect' is the story of Stourley Kracklite, a minor architect neglecting his own work and reputation to stage an exhibition in Rome celebrating Étienne-Louis Boullée, a similarly obscure architect whose best works were never even built, and (since this is a Peter Greenaway film) Kracklite runs into a web of conspiracy, adultery and death, all framed and shot with a striking deliberateness.

(I suspect Boullée's memory and legacy were as much buoyed by this film as painter James Ensor's were by They Might Be Giants' song 'Meet James Ensor'.  In both cases an artist on the edge of obscurity was hailed and given a fresh audience by a modern artist with a cult following.)

The average human intestine is 27 feet long

As his wife's belly swells with pregnancy, so Stourley Kracklite's swells with some nameless curse.  He's right to grow paranoid, as his colleagues and his own self-neglect threaten to wrest his legacy from him, ultimately leaving him more obscure than the centuries-dead Boullée.  He turns to investigation, roams the city, sees terrible things, looks through keyholes, and discovers he is both replaced and doomed.

It's a pretty unpleasant set of characters, but Brian Dennehy's performance as Kracklite looms over them all, leaving him at the centre of the film, likewise dominating the centre of the frame.  Just as 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964) can be seen as a film with one character and a load of Mexicans (if I may oversimplify somewhat), so this is a film full of Stourley Kracklite.  Not that the other characters aren't interesting or well played - they are merely satellites orbiting the story of his swollen gut, and when his belly's story ends, everyone else becomes irrelevant.

Kracklite, Stourley Kracklite.

I can't imagine I'll revisit this film with the same regularity as 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' or 'The Falls' (1980), but I'll happily put it with 'Drowning By Numbers' (1988) and 'Tulse Luper Suitcases' (2003) as an interesting film to watch occasionally.  The fact that it has such a strong central character (as opposed to the mere agents of wit and story who feature in earlier pieces) makes it rather easier to consume.  I've some wariness of recommending any Peter Greenaway films, as I can see he really won't be to everybody's tastes, but if you like stomachs and architecture (an art-form generally neglected by cinema, when compared to the number of films about painters or musicians, say), you might find this film tickles your fancy.

Available from the BFI in a set containing both Blu-ray and DVD.  Handy if you want to see it in high quality, but also take screen-captures for some kind of film-review blog.  The set also includes a 15-minute Peter Greenaway documentary about what a good businessman Terrance Conran is.  And why not?

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