Brian Dennehy was one of the more curious leading men of the 1980s. He was already in his late thirties when he first appeared onscreen (a tiny part in an episode of Kojak that first aired in the January of 1977), though quickly settled into the role of dependable supporting actor after making his mark in the likes of 10, Foul Play and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile. Such a position appeared to be confirmed as he entered the next decade with further solid turns. Regardless of the quality of the material, he was always the standout performer: in our big screen introduction to the John Rambo character, First Blood; in Lawrence Kasdan’s mid-eighties attempt to revive the Western, Silverado; in Ivan Reitman’s lightweight romantic thriller, Legal Eagles. And yet, despite his comparatively advanced years in an era when the far more youthful Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy were dominating the box-office, he was also treated to a handful of leading roles, most notably sharing top of the bill with Bryan Brown in F/X (successful enough to spawn a sequel and a spin-off TV series) and with James Woods in John Flynn’s underrated Best Seller. Admittedly such prominence was short-lived – he transitioned into television movies during the nineties and nowadays crops up in mostly thankless cameos (most recently playing Jack Black’s taciturn father in The Big Year) – but that brief period prompted some really interesting work. Not least, The Belly of an Architect.
Dennehy plays the impressively named Stourley Kracklite, the architect of the title. As the opening credits unfold he arrives in Italy to mount an anniversary exhibition in honour of Étienne-Louis Boullée, an 18th century French architect who produced few finished works yet would go on to become incredibly influential. Kracklite’s crossing of the French-Italian border is marked by a love making session with his wife Louisa (the combination of a train carriage and a back-projected landscape recalling a similar scene in Bertolucci’s The Conformist) resulting in her pregnancy. The nine-month development finds its parallel in the task of bringing the Boullée exhibition to fruition, not to mention a decline in Kracklite’s health. A stomach complaint worsens as the months pass by, though we never learn its cause: poisoning, a perforated ulcer, stress, cancer? This being a Peter Greenaway, it too will culminate at the exact same time as the birth of his child and the grand opening of the exhibition.
The Belly of an Architect was Greenaway’s fourth feature following The Falls, The Draughtsman’s Contract (his breakthrough film) and A Zed & Two Noughts. The inspiration, as laid out by Michael Brooke in the accompanying booklet, was twofold: the death of his father from stomach cancer just prior to taking early retirement and his own suffering of stomach cramps during an Italian promotional tour for The Draughtsman’s Contract. Greenaway also noted, during a Sight & Sound interview at the time, that there were certain parallels between the profession of filmmaker and the profession of architecture: “We both have to be accountable to our backers and the man on the street, but we also need to satisfy ourselves and our idea of culture.” To say, then, that The Belly of an Architect has a strong personal current running through it would be entirely appropriate.
Of course, as with any Greenaway film, his fingerprints are immediately apparent. The precise nature of the compositions (every frame is just so) and the distinctive photography of Sacha Vierny (a regular collaborator between 1986 and 1999; he died in 2001) are the most obvious signature flourishes. Even the score by Wim Mertens (with additional music by Glenn Branca) comes from a similar place to Greenaway’s then-regular composer Michael Nyman and serves a similar purpose. Plus we have the incredible depth of reference and intertextuality of it all: the colour schemes aping those of Boullée as well as appropriately recalling flesh tones; Louisa’s previous miscarriages during their seven-year marriage recalling Kracklite’s previous failed or unfulfilled projects; the belly-like shape of Boullée’s never-realised Cénotaphe à Newton; nods to Augustus Caesar’s death by poisoned figs; and more besides. As with many of Greenaway film, the sheer density of it all is too much for a single sitting – The Belly of an Architect deserves multiple viewings.
If this sounds perhaps a little too erudite and a little too precise, then please be aware that Dennehy’s presence ensures a human touch. “The most emotionally convincing protagonist of any Greenaway film” is Michael Brooke’s opinion in the booklet notes and it’s one which is hard to disagree with. Indeed, whilst Greenaway would occasionally provide some showcase roles (think of John Gielgud in Prospero’s Books where he provides all of the dialogue, not just his own) or assemble some terrific ensembles (Drowning By Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, especially), he’s rarely thought of as an actor’s director. Oftentimes he treats his performers as mere pawns – there to play their part in those impeccable compositions or to lend some symbolic weight (surely Jim Davidson wasn’t cast in A Zed & Two Noughts for his acting talents) – or as just another layer. Yet Dennehy goes beyond that. He’s too imposing, both physically and as an actor, to become another of Greenaway’s tools and as such creates as much of a mark on the picture as its writer and director. The Belly of an Architect may be ‘A Peter Greenaway Film’, but it belongs to Dennehy too.
The Belly of an Architect was released earlier this year as a dual-format edition (containing both Blu-ray and DVD) by the BFI. Encoded for Region B/2, the discs are accompanied by a 32-page booklet plus some DVD-ROM features allowing access to the original screenplay, original press book and sheet music for Wim Mertens’ ‘Birds for the Mind’ theme. The presentation marks another typically excellent high-definition offering from the BFI, the film appearing in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and sourced from an interpositive. The booklet notes “some problems with the original film density that could not be fixed”, but there’s little here to distract from the overall quality. Detail is excellent and the colours are strong, as are the black levels, doing full justice to Sacha Vierny’s photography. Signs of age are at a minimum, with little evidence of damage or even the tiniest specks of dust or dirt. The soundtrack was supplied from MGM in the United States and appears here in LPCM two-channel form. It manages just fine with the dialogue and the music of Mertens and Glenn Branca and comes with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
On-disc extras are limited to a 1981 documentary short Peter Greenaway made for the Central Office of Information. Devoted to the British designer and retailer Terence Conran, it has obvious parallels with The Belly of an Architect in terms of its central figure. Particularly interesting is the line from the latter in which Kracklite describes the lump in his stomach – “Some days it’s spherical, some days it feels like a cube – most days it feels a sharp cornered pyramid” – which also happens to mirror perfectly the Conran logo. Despite the government sponsor and the brief running time (just 15 minutes), Greenaway nevertheless manages to make his stamp on the material. Michael Nyman is on hand to provide the soundtrack, whilst the editing is also just so, switching in a staccato-like fashion between talking heads, shop floors, a Habitat catalogue and buses passing the signs of Conran’s many retail outlets around the world. (Insight: Terence Conran previously appeared on the BFI’s second COI compilation, Design for Today, but this release marks its debut in 1080p.)
The DVD-ROM features consist of the 33-page press book (black and white and no illustrations) which features background information on all of the key cast and crew members plus a synopsis, two-page introduction from Greenaway and five pages of production notes. The screenplay is presented in its final draft, dated 1986, and totals 113 pages, including another (briefer) introduction from Greenaway and three pages of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s designs. The sheet music, as noted above, is for Mertens’ ‘Birds for the Mind’ theme. The accompanying booklet, as well as including the usual selection of illustrations, complete credits and notes on the transfer, finds room for an introductory essay from Michael Brooke, a reprint of Greenaway’s 1987 interview with Sight & Sound (conducted by Donald Ranvaud), bios for Greenaway, Vierny, Mertens and Branca, and notes on Insight: Terence Conran.
Brian Dennehy was one of the more curious leading men of the 1980s. He was already in his late thirt...