Chicago architect Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy) and his much younger, beautiful wife, Louisa (Chloe Webb), arrive in Italy to work for a year preparing an exhibition on his hero, the post-revolutionary French architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée (d. 1799). They make love as the train enters Italy; however, he scarcely looks at his wife again. On the evening of his welcoming dinner--set in the piazza in front of the Pantheon--Kracklite is wracked by the first of the endless, excruciating pains in his belly.

Louisa is pregnant, but in boredom and frustration, she takes an Italian lover, Caspasian (Lambert Wilson). The dashing, young architect has designs on the American's exhibition as well as on his wife; his photographer sister, Flavia, shares the intrigue. Kracklite entertains the hypothesis that his unfaithful wife is trying to poison him. A doctor tells him that the sinister pains are due to his lifestyle, but he does not believe this diagnosis and drifts into a subdued paranoia with delusions of persecution and of grandeur.

Obsessed with the shapes and contents--the architecture and the anatomy--of bellies in sculpture, painting, and photography, Kracklite photocopies ever larger and larger images which he "maps" on to his own prodigious abdomen. He writes postcards to Boulleé pouring out his fears. He identifies with Roman emperors, Christ, and Isaac Newton, to whom Boullée designed a never-constructed, hemispheric cenotaph, the belly-like model of which appears often, recapitulating Kracklite's obsession and Louisa's pregnancy.

After he learns he has cancer, he ends his life by falling backward in a Christ-like posture through a window during the opening ceremony of his Boullée project. At that same moment, his wife gives birth to their child, having cut the ribbon/cord to open the hemispherical exhibition.


A complex, slow-paced, disturbing, and hauntingly beautiful film about an illness that devastates a marriage, a career, a life. Louisa is charmed by but ambivalent about Caspasian; it is Kracklite who drives her to the affair with his obsession, suspicion, and rejection. By the end, his pain is physical, emotional, and professional; awareness of impending death ends his life prematurely.

At one point, a doctor walks him along a corridor lined with Roman busts telling anecdotes of how each died. "He died screaming . . . he died screaming too . . . we don't know about this man, but in any case he's dead." Kracklite recognizes that this doctor offered truth, although he could not provide a cure.

Boullée, whose major works were not built, seems to be a perfect foil for the American whose life, though done, is incomplete, making the film a clever essay on the futility (the vainness?) of vanity and a meditation on death. But Greenaway himself, who conceived of the film while suffering a psychosomatic illness in Rome, claimed it was about the many ways human beings reproduce: in buildings, sculpture, painting, photography, photocopies, and bed.

Rose and orange light bathe the sensual settings in warmth and engage Rome, her architectural monuments, and her sumptuous rooms as key players. Some scenes seem to be static pantomimes of famous interiors, recalling the Italian Renaissance, Van Eyck, Vermeer, or David, while actual images by Vesalius, Michelangelo, and Raphael make cameo appearances. (Those who abhor Sacconi's "wedding cake" monument to Victor-Emmanuel II [1885-1911] are warned that it enjoys a starring role.)

For an architectural perspective on the film see Mikko Metsähonkala, In the Shadow of the Monument, ARK: Finnish Architectural Review, no. 2, 1999.

For more on Boullée, see James A. Leith, Space and Revolution, Projects for Monuments, Squares, and Public Buildings, 1789-1799 (Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press, 1991).


Written by Peter Greenaway.

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