The venerated filmmaker Eisenstein is comparable in talent, insight and wisdom, with the likes of Shakespeare or Beethoven; there are few - if any - directors who can be elevated to such ... See full summary »
An American architect arrives in Italy, supervising an exhibition for a French architect, Boullée, who is famous for his oval structures. Through the course of 9 months he becomes obsessed with his belly, suffers severe stomach pains, loses his wife, exhibition, his unborn child and finally his own life.Written by
Ofir Zwebner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I always know I can turn to Greenaway for nested worlds. He's one of few who can - not always mind, but the few occasions are precious - align the notions of image, how they project outwards to form what we know of reality - an empty field of anxious, random forces tossing us around - and the interior springwell from where these images flow out and which reveals ourselves to be in control of them. The play is usually given to us by some sort of fiction passing as real, or a charade within another, a story within itself, so that we may be directed from the confines of the narrow frame into a broader view that includes it.
The idea is especially powerful in the context of architecture, that we use form to project outwards a set of ideals but, having understood ourselves eventually circumscribed by structures that describe us, we can then use them to describe the inner landscape.
So indeed, we stroll around one such interior Rome, where earlier decadence or glory, or masks thereof, greeting us from marble balustrades and rows of pillars reflect inside. A city so ornately decorated and cast in stone, as though man would outlast his follies.
Into this comes an American architect - the man whose folly is to build things that last - to stage an exhibition for some obscure French architect who died 180 years ago. Italians are not too happy that he hasn't picked one of their own, but they oblige to finance nonetheless.
There are two broad ideas that Greenaway is careful to lightly caress, tease out their potential implications, but finally circumnavigate. The film would have been lesser had it settled on either, or is perhaps greater for encompassing both.
One is the doubling; the architect begins to imagine himself as his older counterpart, writing letters to him in the form of private confessional; then begins imagining himself as emperor Augustus, trapped in the same ploy of marital infidelity and murder. He replicates these stories around him. So these people overlap and are mirrored with bellies, bellies aching with the toll of creation. At this point you may think it is all going to be another film about the creative person losing himself in the mind, merging life with narrative.
The other is, as always with Greenaway, about all this as doubling for the making of the film. It's a film-within device, make no mistake. So the visionary artist is increasingly frustrated by lackeys, ignorant money-men, virulent antagonists scheming to usurp him; energy is wasted in duplicitous dinner parties and idle, but always more or less venomous, chit-chat, until eventually finds himself embittered and alone in his own set.
But it is not merely about the price of genius, or a satire of the contemporary civilized arena that it has to bleed into.
Look for the scene with his doctor in front of the busts of emperors; each bust a face and story, one decadent and evil, another perhaps famed as wise, but all inadvertently gone. A little further down is a bust without name, it could be anyone's, and whatever story will be inscribed upon it, it's again only destined to join this gallery of fiction. It is important to see these follies, but more important to see the continuity.
So it is this acceptance on the part of the architect, the man who builds things not only to last but to be beautiful in time, of the turn of the wheel, decline through rebirth. It is powerful stuff to see; the scene in the police station near the end, where he is simply asked name and age, whether married or not. He is free to go then. He has been jotted down in the ledgers.
The final scenes in the exhibition center echo with this casual dismissal of a life lived, a casual but sweet, relieving it would seem, departure after so much grief with nothing to weigh on the shoulders. He attends the exhibition, the work of a lifetime, from the balustrade above, from the vantage point of not being involved anymore. Everything looks like a small ceremony from there. So this is the nested world that matters; not the exhibition, but the creative life on the ego-redemptive journey through life at large, purging itself of itself, after the painful struggle to master the world building pantheons finally submitting to be the mastered world, transient, as it comes into being and goes again.
As he goes, new life is born down below - and plays, again and again it would seem, before the colossal marble structures.
It is perhaps the ideal Greenaway film; the self-referential tics are all present, the framework ornate, but instead of chaotic it is all mastered into a pillar that supports, unifies vision. The architect - on more levels than one - coming to terms with the architecture of a transient life.
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