Color, 1987, 119m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Stefania Casin
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), MGM (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0
After respected but hardly productive architect Stourley Kracklite (Dennehy) arrives in Italy by train while still in the throes of passion with his wife, Louisa (Sid and Nancy's Webb), they are welcomed with a gala dinner inaugurating his newest project, overseeing the research and restoration for an installation devoted to the French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. Meanwhile nature has two surprises in store: Louisa is now pregnant, and Stourley is suffering from advancing stomach cancer. Stourley plunges headlong into his own private obsessions, repeatedly photocopying architectural designs, wandering the great buildings of Rome, and ignoring the needs of his wife who soon falls into the arms of one of Stourley's patrons, Caspasian Speckler (The Matrix Reloaded's Wilson), who plots with his sister, Flavia (Suspiria's Casini), to usurp all of the glory and potential cash from Kracklite's project.
A surprising break from his previous two films (The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts), director Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect moves far away from the pastoral, green-filled setting of his early work and instead glides through the austere, vaguely ominous streets of Rome where towering, crumbling architecture hovers godlike over the people below. Ostensibly a game of emotional musical chairs played with an American, an Englishwoman, and two devious Italian siblings, the film is really a study of permanence (or lack thereof), as legacies both fulfilled and still growing overshadow the pain of lives destined to be cut short. In terms of plot and visual fillips, this is still one of Greenaway's most minimalist films; the drama moves along its nine-month course in a simple, accessible manner (next to Drowning by Numbers, this would be the best place for Greenaway newcomers to begin), largely ditching the eccentric peripheral characters who populate most of his other films (though you do get a rich patron who randomly grabs women's knees and drops dead in the middle of a reception). Most significantly, this was Greenaway's first film with a strong human pulse thanks to Dennehy's impassioned performance; not surprisingly, Greenaway's next three films were as much actors' showcases as they were aesthetic studies. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny returns again with his trademark gliding camera work, conjuring up some breathtaking visuals around various Roman landmarks. Even such simple devices as a child's top and billowing curtains become objects of visual delight through his lens, making his absence from world cinema now especially regrettable. Regular composer Michael Nyman had to step out of this project due to other commitments, but his position is more than ably filled with a stunning score from modern classical favorite Wim Mertens (with a handful of somber cues from Glenn Branca as well). If only Greenaway's post-Nyman films could have sounded this good!
Barely released upon completion, The Belly of an Architect received a token run in British cinemas from Film Four but didn't reach American audiences until 1990 after the surprise success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Unfortunately Hemdale's video transfer captured little of the film's visual sheen, burying it in an ugly, cropped transfer swabbed in murky tones of brown. The Japanese DVD (which optically censored Casini's frontal nudity) was a slight improvement but still cropped and very soft. MGM's DVD offered a closer approximation to the theatrical experience, with a good color palette and much better framing; here's a film where anamorphic enhancement is really essential to catching all of the details within each shot. The stereo audio sounds solid, limited mainly to the propulsive score. The only extra is the Hemdale theatrical trailer.
In a surprising move, The Belly of an Architect beat out catalog favorite The Draughtsman's Contract to Blu-Ray from the BFI in a dual-format edition also containing a second DVD option. The Blu-Ray's definitely the way to go if possible, and it looks terrific. Most of the film is composed of wide shots filled with peripheral detail, and this transfer comes shockingly close to replicating the immersive theatrical experience. It also allows the viewer to more easily appreciate the striking color symbolism of the film, with the recurring use of crimson (from the silk bathrobes to the long red string winding its way through Dennehy and Casini's encounter) and the use of green gel highlights on the edges of the frame in some of the interiors. Optional English subtitles are included, and the two-channel PCM soundtrack sounds excellent with the pounding music coming through strong and clear. The US trailer is absent here (no huge loss); instead the only video extra is "Insight: Terence Conran," a 15-minute Greenaway TV short from 1981 in which he looks at the renowned industrial designer, his impact on the culture at large, and his efforts to mount a museum dedicated to his craft. Of course it's also a striking visual study of modern design driven by another terrific Nyman score; someday, someone really has to release all of his TV scores, most of which are as interesting as his feature work. The liner notes by Michael Brooke do a solid job of laying out the role of architecture in the film, the real-life facts surrounding Boullée (whom a lot of viewers really did assume was made up for the film), and the aforementioned use of color, while the booklet also contains a vintage Greenaway interview and bios of Greenaway, Vierny, Mertens, and Branca. The DVD also contains some DVD-Rom extras including the screenplay (which was previously published in book form like most Greenaway's other films), presskit materials, and sample sheet music.