In this day in age of rancid franchises and gimpy indies, watching a Peter Greenaway film is like discovering God for the first time and welcoming into your eyes and ears and skin the hard blue light of salvation. Yes, Greenaway is British and yes, his films are nothing if not overtly pretentious, frequently hilarious, weird, strange, highly stylized arthouse fare. Possessed of a quick eye, keen ear, and brass balls, he likes to dance and don’t care who knows it.
Thus it comes as little surprise that 1987’s Belly of an Architect serves up the goods and serves them up right. Brian Dennehy is Stourley Kracklite, an aging Chicago architect invited to Rome to drink a little wine, get a little loose, and maybe just unveil a fresh creation or two in a much-anticipated exhibition devoted to the honor of real-life French draftsmen Etienne-Louis Boulee. Chloe Webb, the deader half of Sid and Nancy, is Louisa, Kracklite’s wife and a regular Michelin man when it comes to waxing stray johnsons. Add a rival architect named Caspasian Speckler, a grand sampling of Rome’s finest scenery, moving voiceovers on illness, mortality, the meaning of the sacred in modern society, the disjunction between thought and language, and the nature of ritual, a dazzling 80s synth score, and there’s definitely something in the air tonight.
If the plot sounds a bit slim, it is. As with any of the subjects he has chosen, Greenaway is not so much interested in examining the architecture world or its inhabitants as he is on using style and narration to meditate on art itself. At the same time, the show must go on and the film makes due time for all manner of sexual antics and substance abuse. Between stirring montages of plinths, pillars, and promenades, Dennehy brawls, bawls, falls asleep in his own vomit, and begins making hundreds of photocopies of his very own stomach in an effort to discover the true relationship between inner and outer illness, all while the dashing Caspasian and Chloe Webb explore the finer points of global diplomacy on the chaise lounge.
What does any of this have to do with the transformative power of art and the relevatory nature of the image? If your like your snuff raw, not much. Surprisingly, Belly boasts very little blood to speak of. If you don’t mind a little contemplation, though, and even enjoy seeing a fat man have sex from time to time, Greenaway’s film will offer a wealth of stimulating thought nuggets on which to dine, from the famed modernist insight that every act of creation is also an act of destruction to the more contemporary observation that drinking and profanity often go well together. This is cinema. This is art. Do yourself a favor and don’t be left out in the cold: crack open a bottle, unbuckle your pants so that your stomach hangs out like pregnant woman's, and enjoy the ride. Highly recommended.