Director: Peter Greenaway
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Sergio Fantoni
Producer: Colin Callender & Walter Donohue
Country: UK, Italy
Running Time: 119 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Peter Greenaway is a director whose work I’ve avoided for the entirety of my 30 years on this planet. I haven’t actively shunned his work so to speak, but his reputation for making impenetrable, capital ‘A’ art films prevented me from actively seeking his films out. They’ve never been popular in the multiplexes or HMV’s of the country either, despite being a fellow Brit, so I’ve never had a chance to stumble upon titles such as The Draughtman’s Contract or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. When I was offered a screener to review The Belly of an Architect, I must admit I had a little look online first to check if I really wanted to watch it, but hearing that the film is considered one of his most accessible works, I thought why not finally take the plunge.
The Belly of an Architect stars Brian Dennehy as Stourley Kraklite, an American architect that has come to Rome with his young wife (Chloe Webb) to head an exhibition celebrating the work of the visionary eighteenth-century architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. His passion for the subject overwhelms him as he throws himself deep into his work, bringing on fierce abdominal pains. His life deteriorates around him as his pregnant wife is shunned into the arms of a rival and jealousy and paranoia overtake his mind, causing his stomach problem to get worse and worse. Due to this Kraklite becomes as obsessed with his belly as he is with Boullée. Eventually even his ability to complete the project comes into question and Kraklite is left with nothing but his pain and suffering.
I had a couple of minor problems with the film, but on the whole I liked this a lot more than I expected. Standing out in particular was the visual artistry on display. I came to the film expecting well shot lavish settings, but nothing prepared me for the gobsmackingly stunning spectacle I was treated to. Blu-Ray is certainly the way to see this film (or a polished 35mm print of course) as Greenaway’s use of colours is incredible. Using Boullée’s favourite red piercing through the walls of the grand Roman architecture and occasionally attacking these rich hues with hideous greens to represent the sickness and jealousy eating through Kraklite, this is a sumptuous treat for the eyes. Greenaway’s careful symmetrical framing and composition perfectly complements the world of obsessive craftsmen he has created and provides a contrasting backdrop to Kraklite’s bloated, staggering frame as he struggles to stay in control of himself.
The actual narrative and scenes themselves weren’t anywhere near as indecipherable or distant as I expected either. I think the grossly underrated Dennehy helps, as his natural performance makes his character a lot more sympathetic than it could have been and he stands out against the (probably purposefully) stilted actors surrounding him. After years of seeing him relegated to ‘police captain xxxxx’ in countless blockbusters and B-movies it’s revelatory to see him carry a film so successfully. He’s an actor that’s crying out for someone like Tarantino to give his career a reboot.
As mentioned previously I didn’t think the film was perfect. As intoxicating as I found Kraklite’s spiralling descent, I was disappointed to find that it never leads anywhere interesting, but merely to a predictable and inevitably bleak conclusion. It’s not a bad ending so to speak and I’m not sure what else they could have done with it, but the story never really made any side-turns, it just kept plummeting down, which made for a rather unsatisfying whole.
Overall though, The Belly of an Architect is so painstakingly well crafted in its mis-en-scene and so bewitching with its powerhouse lead performance that I’m desperate to fill the Greenaway-shaped void I’ve long been cultivating for no good reason. This new set is highly recommended to fans of the director and those like me who thought they wouldn’t be.
The Belly of an Architect is out on 18th June in a dual format Blu-Ray & DVD set, released by the BFI. The picture quality is suitably stunning. Dark scenes suffer from a little noise, but nothing too distracting – elsewhere there are bold colours, rich detail and a healthy cinematic grain. Audio is great too. This is the Blu-Ray premiere for the film (DVD premiere in the UK) and for fans of Greenaway the wait has been worth it.
In addition to the film, there’s a 15 minute documentary by Greenaway called Insight: Terence Conran, a portrait of the designer and entrepreneur. There’s DVD-ROM content in the form of the original script, press pack and sheet music which is an interesting addition. On top of this you get the customary booklet as with all BFI releases and it is as in depth and informative as expected.