The Belly of an Architect (1987) Film Essay

The Belly of an Architect (1987) Film

            In Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect, Stourley Kracklite is an intellectual Chicago architect invited by Italian benefactors to set up an exhibition in Rome on the visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boulee. Kracklite has nine months in which to deliver his architectural exhibit, which he considers the greatest achievement of his career. Not unlike Boulee, Kracklite is an architect who failed to materialize his greatest ideas, his most important realization being a usual house built for himself. In the very moment his wife realizes she is pregnant, the architect begins to suffer acute abdominal pains, the first symptoms of stomach cancer.

            The story unfolds around two parallel narrations: the wife is very happily experiencing the growth of life in her belly; Kracklite is constantly worried about the growth of illness in his. First he fears that he is the victim of poisoned figs; he suspects and eventually accuses his wife of poisoning him. Rather she is poisoning his mind by exhibiting to the public signs of a fertility he can only envy.

            The relationship between the architect and his wife becomes impossible. Everything seems to fall apart when he sees photographs of her pregnant belly. He finds the big belly repulsive, as if it were deformed, a sort of insult to aesthetic sensibility.

            The architect, who is not interested in the banality of construction, but only in exceptional conceptions, finds unbearable the deformation implied by giving birth to an animated being. But his purity, his chastity, his sublime sterility, and his simulated renunciation, are undermined by a deep, poisoning illness growing inside his body. Kracklite palpates, watches, analyses, and photocopies his flaccid abdomen. He compares it with another famous poisoned belly, that of Augustus Caesar.

            Greenaway’s film contains an especially vivid sequence where Kracklite, waiting in the physician’s office, twists a long plastic tube and compresses it over his swollen belly to imagine what he has inside. In another sequence, someone shows him an unknown Boullee portrait. Kracklite is immediately struck by the architect’s belly, a sort of swollen, hanging bag which is staring at him with a lonely eye, the navel. Certainly this visionary architect, a hybrid of Boullee and Piranesi, was also sick in his belly.

            As the project enters its ninth month, the moment when the exhibit will open and the wife will give birth to the baby, Kracklite feels totally abandoned and isolated. His body has been poisoned by cancer, his marriage by infidelity, and his project by administrative and financial politics. Obsessed by his belly, he commits suicide, jumping from the window of a monument to Vittorio Emmanuel while his wife opens his exhibition on Boullee, and where her water breaks. For Kracklite, the male architect’s simulated conceptions become not only futile but sickening, while the woman houses and gives birth to the life in her body.

            The end of Greenaway’s movie overturns the end of the movie version of Ayn Rand’s famous novel The Fountainhead, where the enraptured lover of the architect is taken up to the top of his glorious skyscraper.

            The most prominent aspect of The Belly of an Architect (1987) is architecture. Not only is the film set in Rome, the world’s architectural capital, but it tells the story of an arrogant but visionary American architect from Chicago, who comes to Rome to organize an exhibition in honor of yet another architect, eighteenth century E.L. Boullee. The film exploits the signs and codes of architecture, as a special language, and enables the director to voice his ideas about art and culture through art.

Reference

Greenaway, P. (1988). The Belly of an Architect. Dis Voir.