The Belly of an Architect Review
By Jake Euker
Architect Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy) arrives in Rome, where an exhibition of the works of the 18th-century architect Etienne-Louis Boullée is being mounted under Kracklite's supervision. The city - or something - doesn't sit with him; upon arrival, he begins complaining of stomach pains. Cancer? Kracklite is sure of it. Or not: It could be that his wife Louisa (Chloe Webb), with whom he is traveling (and who is pregnant with his child), is poisoning him, a revenge for his self-absorption. She may be further motivated in this by the affair she has taken up with Caspasian Speckler (Lambert Wilson), another architect involved with the exhibition. Which brings us back to the exhibition: Boullée's architectural metaphor of choice was the oval, a detail that finds an echo in Louisa's pregnancy and Kracklite's gut; and, in fact, Kracklite soon discovers that Boullée's life in many ways parallels his own. There's the fact too of a Roman statue of Augustus to which Kracklite takes a shine, and the pertinent detail being that Augustus was himself poisoned by his wife Livia. Our hero, among other eccentric behaviors, begins xeroxing photos of the statue's stomach...
So it is that Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect is crammed to bursting with symbolism, analogy, and allusion, all loosed within a circular plot wherein the film opens with the architect and his wife conceiving a child and closes with the opening of Boullée's exhibition, Kracklite's real "baby." But for many viewers, I believe, the most telling parallel is that between Kracklite, with his perpetual stomach upset, and director Greenaway: Both are pretentious gasbags. Another quick connection is that between the "belly" of the title and "taste." The secret subtext of all of Greenaway's work is that his taste is good, or at least arcane in a high-minded way (and despite a predilection for bodily functions that is present in most of his films, which in less tony productions would rightly be termed sophomoric). The viewer is invited to share in this, but it's made clear that those who don't (or who can't follow his esoteric web of allusion) are either pigs (as was the villain in Greenaway's major success, 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), philistines, or merely dim.
Greenaway has an eye for composition, and in The Belly of an Architect many formal arrangements stand out for their beauty. Dennehy, always engaging, is slyly illegible in the central role, a stroke of luck maybe for the director, who has shown himself to be disinclined to bother much with actors. But the relentless condescension and self-congratulation with which Greenaway conducts this very private amusement is grotesque. He fosters the worst imaginable relationship with his audience: showing off while condemning those not enlightened enough to cherish his preening. In Kracklite, Greenaway has created a self-obsessed, boorish non-hero on whom to hang his obscurantist ramblings, and his indifference to his audience is so great that he expects us to relish it. Who's the asshole here?
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Wednesday 23rd September 1987
Production compaines: Sacis, Callender Company, Mondial, Tangram Film, Film Four International, British Screen, Hemdale Group
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 10 Rotten: 1
Cast & Crew