One cannot discuss any Peter Greenaway film without shedding some light on Greenaway himself. In 1947, when he was 16, he saw an Ingmar Bergman film, and he decided that he would be a filmmaker. He was trained as a painter, and he worked as a film editor for the British Central Office of Information throughout the 60’s and 70’s. During the latter part of this period he got the creative urge to produce some experimental short films. By 1978 his documentaries and short films had won several prizes. He directed his first feature film, THE DROUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT in 1983. THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT, his third film, was filmed in 1986. As a writer, he has produced several novels, several screenplays, and other books.

Presently, he is a professor of Cinema Studies at EGS [European Graduate School, headquartered in Switzerland, with a campus in NYC]. One of his most infamous quotes is,” Creation to me is to try and orchestrate the universe to better understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems, which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos.” When his films are criticized for being too distant and disdainful of the audience, of being obtuse and too cerebral, he responds with,” My work is often accused of being cool and intellectually exhibitionistic. But that sense of distance and contemplation they require has much more to do with painting than with movies. When you go to an art gallery, you do not emote like people do in movies. I am determined to get away from that manipulated emotional response done so well by the Hollywood cinema. I really don’t think that we have seen any cinema yet. I think that we have seen a 100 years of illustrated text.”

Greenaway is determined to stretch, to expand the technical boundaries of film. He sets up his camera, and then he choreographs people and objects to track past it. Each frame is a masterwork of color, light, shadow, and a sumptuous visual feast of dazzling props; almost too many, too much texture to fully sense. We are aware of the layered complexities of each shot, but we cannot fully comprehend it in one viewing. It is like a scene on a master’s engraving that one only gets a first impression of without magnifying and studying it. The director has stated,” Cinema must be realistic, yes, must reflect the external world, but each scene should also render a multilayer metaphysical meaning as well. I want to explore metaphor and symbol. So I pay attention to how a scene is shot, not just to the camera angles of fast cuts.”

As a former film editor, he cuts in the camera lens. He loves long tracking shots, and he usually does them in one take. His eye for composition, his imagery dominates the flow of events. He will open many scenes in tableau, usually in a long shot, and then he allows it to stir to life. He has said,” For me, time is compressed by allusion.” This is a solid and basic metaphysical principle. Time is postulated as non-existent in the overlapping dimensions that surround us on this plane. Time is but a manifest construct than man seems to need to reinforce an unnatural sense of order and control over Nature and natural events. This postulate is well supported in Zen texts and New Age literature. Man is both the center of his known universe, and likewise just a random DNA strand in the anatomical cells of the greater body of All That Is.

His cinematographer, the great French lenser, Sacha Vierny, helps Greenway’s cinematic look, his style, immensely. Vierny died in 2001. He had shot BELLE DE JOUR in 1967, and MON ONCLE D’AMERQUE in 1980. In 1985 he began his creative partnership with Greenaway. Between 1985-1999, he shot eleven of Greenaway’s projects. Peter Greenaway could write the dialogue, create the concept, communicate the idea, but it was the incomparable Vierny that composed it in the frame. In this film, the director was also helped a lot by his Art Director, Giorgio Desideri. Greenaway would create an elaborate storyboard. Desideri would dress those elaborate sets, and Vierny would shoot them as if each frame would be a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph. Two composers, Glenn Branca and Wim Mertens, completed the score. For Branca this was his first film music composition. He only completed one other. For Mertens this was his first film score as well. He did go on to complete nine others however. This collaborated score soared from Neo-Classical to jazz. It had a nice Neopolitan feel to it, like Nino Rota-lite.

Greenaway has divided critics throughout his career, with many complaining that his actors appear undirected, and that his plots are non-linear, often illogical or irrational. He often shocks the audience with graphic nudity or violence, and he thumbs his nose at most contemporary mores and manners. His films are often very violent, yet the violence does not erupt out of thin air, and it is never gratuitous. He has said,” Most popular films are filled with violence. The difference between those and my films is that I show the cause and the effect of violent activity.” Discussing his propensity for nude scenes, he stated,” Cinema doesn’t connect with the human body as artists have in 2,000 years of painting, using the nude as the central figure, which the ideas circulate around. Cinema basically examines a personality first and the body afterward.”

It has been said of Greenaway,” As a director, he sees people having sex, and he thinks of geometry. He is the Cartesian diagrammatist of perverse desire.” He actually is such a unique force, such an individualist, that as a film director he has no compeer. So from project to project he only has himself to compete with. He admires only one American director; David Lynch. He has been called pompous and arrogant, and “an eccentric obsessive toying around with the boundaries (of film).” For me, viewing his films is like going on a Visionquest. It becomes a meticulous marriage between emotion and intellect. He allows one’s spirit to soar; to glide in pure white light for a moment, and then it descends to the depths of the most terrible darkness the next.

After seeing a Greenaway film, I always feel rushed, like I have run a foot race through the Louvre, as if ten times too much visual information has rippled over my retina, and that my visual cortex has only perceived a tiny portion of it; that repeated viewings are in order. I usually feel ignorant of the many classical, historical, and philosophic references. I feel that I need to read more, study more, think more, and that I wish I were smarter than I am. I never feel condescended to. Rather I just feel extremely challenged and vastly over-stimulated.

One critic, Hal Hinson, of the Washington Post wrote,” Greenaway’s art comes complete with its out vacuum, and it makes you feel foolish for wanting it to all come to something.” Even though he admitted that the director’s use of the camera and the art direction for this film was splendid, still he considered BELLY as “ Greenaway’s least effective work.” Perhaps he needs to watch the film again.

Greenaway as a writer favors the absurd qualities of life, like a Samuel Beckett or a Harold Pinter. But he is not fond of their silences and their understatement. He paints with a broader brush. He writes vigorously and sensually. He has stated,” It you want to tell stories, be a writer, not a film maker.” Unfortunately most screenplay writers watch their work being torn to shreds by directors who are wannbe writers, by producers who read too much, by producer’s girlfriends who imagine they can write, by the stars themselves who simply cannot memorize lines effectively; or like Sly Stallone, who thinks of writing as something to aspire to. What finally shows up on the screen barely resembles the original writing. It has become a seething gumbo prepared by many cooks, seasoned by assorted perceptual spices. Sometimes this pastiche of writers and styles miraculously creates a solid cohesive vision, even a masterpiece, like CASABLANCA. More often, though, it produces a Frankenstein’s monster of non-related ideas and concepts. Not so though for the writer/directors like Greenaway and Woody Allen. They can safeguard their own visions, and lovingly promulgate their own language.

Enter Brian Dennehy as the American architect Stourley Kracklite. Kracklite is a strong sounding name, but it implies a damaged core, a hidden weakness. Dennehy, an accomplished actor, veteran of over 100 films, squeezed this one in between BEST SELLER and LION IN AFRICA; all three completed in 1987. The movie starts in the heat of a sexual encounter as Kracklite copulates his way into Italy. What a grand entrance! He was a minor architect, hailing from Chicago, city of red meat and money. Wide of shoulder, ample of belly, Kracklite, bearded and bellicose, swaggered about barking orders. He had come to Rome to set up and oversee an exhibition honoring his artistic hero, the 18th century architect, Etienne Louis Boullee’; 1728-1799.

Louis Boullee did not complete many projects, but he was famous for his oval structures, and his simple balanced symmetrical geometric shapes. His focus on polarity, the offsetting of opposite design elements, and his use of light and shadow, mark him as a visionary theoretician. This echoes the careers of both Kracklite the character, and Greenaway the director. Boullee only wrote one book,” Essay on the Art of Architecture “, and it was not published until 1953. He suffered from ill health, and this prevented him from traveling much, or marketing his talent.

Stourley Kracklite was a self-absorbed Type-A personality, a bit boorish, and he only had pedestrian architectural talents. He had been married to his wife Louisa for seven years. He was 54. She was 24. His inattentiveness to his young wife would cost him dearly. Louisa’s father was Italian. She found in Rome a blossoming of passion, and a sense of coming home. She discovered early on in the story that she was pregnant. That tryst on the train had sown the seed.

Chloe Webb played Louisa. This was only her second film, in what would be a modest career. She was 26 while filming. She was not very good. She badly needed direction. But Greenaway was not available for such trivial pursuits. Brian Dennehy, on the other hand, needed no direction. His bulk and energy were barely contained in the frame. He was more than ready to grandstand, to perform a one-man show, to shake those pillars on all those great buildings like they were bed railings. Lambert Wilson gave great support as the handsome wealthy Roman architect Caspasian Speckler. Wilson, an actor known mostly for his portrayal of French rogue Merovingnian in the MATRIX trilogy, is likewise a very accomplished actor. As Caspasian, he was both financier and usurper. He was first to notice Louisa’s pregnancy, and first to sip at her prenatal passions. He was rich, arrogant, playful, randy, and deeply dishonest. He would steal Kracklite’s life, and his wife. He would wrench the exhibition out of the American’s hands, and he would witness the man’s rapid deterioration with delight, like a vampish parasite.

Greenaway weaved several motifs into the piece. First and foremost was the symbol of the oval, the zero, the letter “O”; as in the architecture of Boullee, and the round bellies of the hedonistic Kracklite, and the pregnant Louisa. Kracklite envied Caspasian his youth and his flat belly. The American wandered about Rome, a city of perfect scaling, littered with statues sporting imposing musculature. It made him self-conscious of his age and his obesity. He felt pitifully rotund amidst such graceful rotunda. Greenaway set up the structure of the film to fit within the cycle of gestation, from conception on the rails to birth during the opening ceremony of the Boullee exhibition. Then he added to that the stalwart metaphysical principle that death coincides with birth, one making room for the other, creating a dark and wonderful partnership.

Another primary motif was the stomach itself, that masculine row of three sets of abdominal muscles; steel hard and symmetrical; that magical sexy six-pack of abs. Admirable abs have propelled many a male model, and many a movie star into the limelight; like Charles Bronson, Dennis Quaid, and Brad Pitt. Even more than bulging biceps, when a man flashes a flat stomach, rippled with three rows of iron, everyone’s eyes are riveted to his midriff. Sexual prowess and animal magnetism radiate from that area.

Kracklite was stricken with stomach cramps immediately upon his arrival in Rome. At first they were fleeting, but then later more often and longer lasting. His voracious diet of red meats seemed to have caught up with him. His half century of gluttony just backed up within him, and that viral demon cancer began to blossom in his colon. He snarled, raged, snapped, and thrashed about, but caught firmly like a bear in a trap, it was to no avail. Cancer would be the victor, and he would not see his next birthday. He discovered that Boullee had suffered with ill health too, and this became yet another parallel he shared with his imagined mentor.

Madness began to descend into Kracklite’s aura, into the muscles of his heart, squeezing his flickering spirit like a clenched fist. Nefarious and resolute, it began to tempt him. He began stealing post cards wherever he went, and he wrote notes to Boullee, whom he felt strongly connected to. He became fixated with the stomach on the statue of Augustus. He ran dozens of copies of those abs, and at one point he wore the picture under his shirt masking his own swollen corpulence. Later he found a print of Boullee, who had a round belly like Kracklite’s. He ran dozens of copies of that, covering his floor with the photos. Then he became paranoid, fearing that Louisa was trying to poison him, like Augustus’ wife, Livia, had done to him. He became a vegetarian, or a fruitetarian. He feared figs. He stated,” All fascists are meat eaters.”

He began to spend more time regurgitating than he did sightseeing. During one scene a stray dog rushed up to consume his steaming vomit. Nature and Greenaway asserted themselves. He was flattered and seduced by Caspasian’s sister, who was a spoiled dilettante and sometimes photographer. Posing for her, wearing a ratty fake beard, he happened on to a photo collage she had done on him; collating and cataloging his malady and his decaying personage. It was all there, spread out over twenty feet of wall; the sex, the food, the urinating and throwing up; the complete disintegration of his short sad life. He had by God come to Rome on high, his groin erect, his ego unchecked, his voice and constitution sturdy. And in one rapid summer it was all reduced to shambles, was eroded, torn asunder, rendered down to mestastisized cancerous pygmies rushing about in his swollen guts.

So Kracklite, desperate as a tethered wolf, ready to chew his own foot off to escape, in one last angry act of defiance, just as he heard the first cry from his newborn infant, threw himself backward out of a three-story window and he came crashing down onto Caspasian’s car; bashing it with the whole bulk of his accelerated body, striking back at Speckler who had cuckolded him, who had stolen his life’s work, martyring himself on a Mercedes, sacrificing his decaying essence to pugnaciously prove one final point. He exercised one last willful act in the teeth of the cancer that was already devouring him, and to death that was rushing headlong toward him.

In many of Greenaway’s films, the male protagonist attempts to achieve some lasting magnificent cultural event before his demise. Only rarely, as in PROSPERO’S BOOKS, does one ever accomplish the goal. We find that Art generally outlives the artist, and the denizens unknown, the populous of the mist, or the future, enjoy it posthumously. The director points to Art, and we often wonder about the creative act itself. He has asked,” What comes first, the art or the artist? And then what comes last of both endlessly signify the other?” Oddly, during the rolling of the end credits, I found myself wondering about the fate of Louisa, the wife, having given birth on that cold marble floor. Certainly, Caspasian would now discard her. Would she return to Chicago and live in that house Kracklite had designed, a house she never liked? Or would she stay in Italy, spending the insurance money, and taking a long string of young lovers, and milling about with other American expatriates? Was the child a boy, and what would be its plight?

A silly speculation, I guess, but still I wondered.

This film is not a masterpiece, but it was constructed masterfully. Nor is it a vacuous exercise in esthetics as some critics have labeled it. It is a very good film, filled with plenty of grist and gusto, philosophy and symbol, icon and sensuality.

I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004