The films that Peter Greenaway made in the 1980s, even the lesser known examples shot between The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), all share many aspects. These include deliberate camera movements across elegant tableaux vivants, an interest in food, sex and mortality, visual and textual references to art and mathematics and a score by Michael Nyman. This is not say that these films are disappointing in any way, but just that if you’ve seen one of them you know what to expect from the others. Having seen all of the director’s 1980s films except The Belly of an Architect, I wasn’t surprised by its style, pace and content - and even though Nyman didn’t score this film, Wim Marten’s music is very similar in style.
In this 1987 rumination on sex, death, art and food, underrated character-actor Brian Dennehy is cast against type as an intellectual romantic lead, in contrast to his usual roles as cops and agents of the law in quirky thrillers and Westerns. Dennehy plays overweight architect Stourley Kracklite, whose obsessions with intestinal disease and mounting an exhibition on the fantastical French neo-classical architect í‰tienne-Louis Boullée are costing him his marriage and sanity.
Boullée is an apt obsession for Kracklite, who is better known for his uncompleted and lost projects rather than the few that survive. Echoing the grand follies that his 18th-century forebear wanted to leave as his legacy, the modern architect struggles with realising his predecessor’s work in an exhibition beset by spiralling costs and local meddlers who want to seduce his wife or invite him to feasts, adding to his already prodigious waist line. As each generation of architects is bound to be replaced by the next unless they are able to realise monumental projects within their lifetimes, Kracklite is doomed from the moment he enters Italy while impregnating his wife on a train - her pregnancy mimicking the tumour that is growing within his belly.
Greenaway beautifully lets each of the architect’s obsessions contrast with the other: while he finds and enlarges numerous photocopies of classical sculptures that fill the floor of his apartment, his self-obsession drives his wife into the arms of another, who can worship her body in his stead. The director chooses a variety of stunning backdrops across Rome and his lead actor’s physical presence contrasts well with the classical landscape.
As the eponymous belly expands with a tumour inside and the story winds its way to inescapable tragedy, Greenaway’s film adds to the legacy of sex and death attached to Italian cities on film. From the endless murder and copulation in the ancient Rome featured in Caligula (1979) to cannibalism and revenge in modern day Florence in Hannibal (1991) - not to mention most of Dario Argento‘s oeuvre - it seems that the spectre of reoccurring carnal tragedy haunts dramas played out in classical metropolises south of the Alps.
While the finale may seem inevitable from early on and the directing style telegraphed in advance, the film is both solid and morbidly reassuring, like the architecture it promotes, as well as sumptuous and easily digestible like the feasts and wine that hasten the architect’s demise.