The Belly of an Architect

“Beautiful butterflies trapped by drawing pins”. That is how critic Chris Auty describes the cinema of Peter Greenaway, a self-described painter working through the medium of film. With classical Roman architecture as its key theme, The Belly of an Architect is a typically hermetic, alluring study on vanity, reproduction and impermanence. All of Greenaway’s aesthetic hallmarks - rigorously symmetrical composition, numerical games, graphic sex - are present. Yet The Belly of an Architect is arguably his most haunting and humanist picture, foregrounding its style within the conventions of Greek tragedy. Along with contemporary peers Derek Jarman and Pedro Costa, Greenaway not only makes a film about architecture but treats his film as architecture.

The Belly of an Architect is centred around Stourley Kracklite, who has been invited to Rome to curate an exhibition on the influential French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. Although few of Boullée’s designs were ever constructed, Kracklite, himself an architect, holds Boullée in devotional regard. Growing increasingly insular and obsessive, Kracklite fails to recognise his mounting problems. His financiers dismiss Boullée as an insignificant relic, his pregnant wife begins sleeping with his rival Caspian, and he experiences worsening stomach pains. Overwhelmed by the permanence of Roman architecture in the face of his failed ambitions, it is not long before Kracklite loses everything he holds dear.

The setting of Rome, as the source of the term “body politic”, allows Greenaway to consider the dialectic between urban and inner space. It also allows for a more naturalistic foregrounding of classical art within the narrative than in Greenaway’s other films. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny captures the city’s classical buildings like architectural diagrams, idealised and almost two-dimensional against the fallibility of Kracklite’s human form. He is always being dwarfed: by the cabal of Roman elites, by Louisa’s fecundity against his cancer-ridden stomach, by the majesty of Roman architecture itself.

If Boullée is said in the film to be a precursor to modernism, Kracklite represents its death knell. Unkindly contrasted with the idealised abdomens of classical art, Kracklite’s body bulges out of its skin, corrupting the Vitruvian principles of proportion, symmetry and balance. The same is true for the shadowy Roman elite, who have had said principles co-opted by ideology. Unbound by morality or civic duty, they mimic the fascism of their architecture. Yet the irony is not lost on Greenaway, whose own geometric formalism borders on authoritarian, and who, like Kracklite, obsessively reproduces older works of art in a bid for immortality. The Belly of an Architect may be read as a critique of Greenaway-as-artist: indeed, Kracklite’s stomach aches were based on psychosomatic pains Greenaway experienced whilst promoting 1981’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. Kracklite’s pursuit of esoteric interests coinciding with a reversal in his fortunes anticipates the increasingly indifferent response Greenaway’s later films would receive.

The Belly of an Architect remains something of an outlier in Greenaway’s filmography. It was his first film not to be scored by Michael Nyman, with Glenn Branca and Wim Merten contributing a similar kind of arpeggiated unease. Brian Dehenny as Kracklite is one of the few Americans Greenaway ever cast, and his intensely physical performance threatens to tear apart the studied confines Greenaway’s images. The film’s operatic finale is emotionally resonant in a way Greenaway never attempted before or since. Ultimately, The Belly of an Architect can be read as a cautionary tale: Kracklite is so preoccupied with reproducing the works of his forebears, he fails to recognise the literal reproduction happening in his wife’s stomach. The film conveys both the impossibility of achieving artistic immortality and reminds the viewer that life is lived in the body, not through one’s legacy.

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