Kracklite, poor baby, has a tummy ache. In Peter Greenaway's 1987 "The Belly of an Architect," Brian Dennehy plays Kracklite, an illustrious architect from Chicago, "city of red meat and money," who has come to Rome with his wife, Louisa (Chloe Webb), to mount an exhibition honoring his hero, the visionary 18th-century French architect Etienne-Louis Boullee. Almost immediately, though, he begins grabbing his gut and doubling over in pain.
Must have been something I ate, he says.
More like something the director ate, actually.
This is a gassy, overbearing, pretentious little bit of art-in-your face, from the director of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," and it revisits some of the filmmaker's favorite places (the men's room, for example) and favorite themes (life as consumption and elimination). Most of the film's meanings are buried inside the artist's big, intellectually high-rolling metaphors.
As therapy, Kracklite -- whose younger wife immediately begins a flirting relationship with Speckler (Lambert Wilson), the dashing architect in charge of financing the exhibit -- starts making photocopies of a postcard of a statue of Augustus, whose wife, Livia, poisoned him. More specifically, his obsession seems to be with the stomach of Augustus, which is first in a long list of obsessions, including Boullee, Isaac Newton, figs and postcards, which he habitually steals. Slouching over the copy machine, he makes hundreds of these belly shots, sometimes slipping them under his shirt or making doodling artistic notations on them. When he goes to the doctor to determine whether his wife is in fact poisoning him, he slips him a handful of these "notes."
Do you have such a grand gut? the doctor asks, then suggests that the architect is suffering from the effects of gas and too much egotism. (His diagnosis could work for the movie too.) As Kracklite's health deteriorates and he begins to encounter difficulties with the exhibition, we learn that, like Boullee, he has trouble finishing his projects. We also learn that Louisa has had several miscarriages, and that she is pregnant with a child she and her husband conceived on the train coming into Rome.
Greenaway has timed the movie to the cycle of birth; it begins, in fact, with that lovemaking scene and ends with the birth of their baby as the exhibition opens nine months later. And while we're aware that an equation is being drawn between the different forms of creation, the ideas are so dryly presented and detached so completely from their human context that we're not entirely sure what the significance is. Our reaction, ultimately, is so what? So what if the metaphors are smartly and elegantly shaped, if the visual style -- which makes glorious use of the architecture of Rome -- is sumptuous, if Greenaway's sensibility is complex and original? Greenaway's art comes complete with its own vacuum; it makes you feel foolish for wanting it all to come to something.