• Between 1985 and 1989 there may have been no greater auteur in world cinema than Peter Greenaway. Certainly Kieslowski made Dekalog during this time, you have Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and Woody Allen (Purple Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors). Of course, I have the benefit of selecting the specific date range for Greenaway’s argument here– but still- to be the best over any five-year stretch in the artform’s short history should not be ignored. I haven’t been able to locate Drowning By Numbers (1988) but Greenaway directed A Zed &Two Noughts (1985), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and The Belly of an Architect

    Greenaway’s go-to DP and most important collaborator is Sacha Vierny — Vierny worked with Resnais on Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad

    handsome interiors– rigorously designed

  • Shot on location in Rome—Greenaway is clearly in absolute love with the architecture (he made The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982 so he’s just as interested in this as he is in cinema)

most films have maybe one shot like this– at most a few

symmetry and numbering– two obsessions (beyond cinema and architecture) for Greenaway

proudly esoteric -few auteurs worked with this kind of ambition with this tiny of a target audience… maybe Bela Tarr?

  • The film features countless tableau / last supper shots (Pasolini, Bunuel) as much of his work would (especially The Cook, The Thief)—always symmetrical – impeccably designed frames– maybe only Wes Anderson matches him here

smack dab in front of the Pantheon here

  • Brian Dennehy plays the architect- he’s an arrogant American (the doctor says he’s suffering from “egotism” at one point). He’s paranoid (turns out for good reason) and fatalistic. The film starts with him at the absolutely top of his profession and what follows as far as the narrative is concerned is really the tragic, almost Biblical, tale of his demise

Dennehy is very good here (don’t get me wrong, I’d love to 1970’s Brando or like Rod Steiger during his Pawnbroker-era best instead)– Chloe Webb is miscast

Greenaway will put the characters in discussion (via dubbing) in the very back of the of the frame here through a doorway

… does it again here

  • Dennehy is very good here- a decent get for Greenaway (never a box office champion) after First Blood and Cocoon. Chloe Webb isn’t half as strong—she’s miscast (but no doubt a pretty decently sized star after her work the year before in Sid and Nancy -which she is just much better suited for). Dennehy was quoted to have said “I’ve made lots of movies but only one film” when talking about The Belly of an Architect – this had to tickle Greenaway
  • The film is filled with an unmatched visual bravado in 1987- even Kubrick with Full Metal Jacket doesn’t achieve as much. Greenaway’s trademark medium-long shots with immaculately designed furnishings are in abundance. There are hardly any closeups. Reoccurring visual motifs of flowing curtains, a great set piece of the roman columns in the grass (a shot that would make Tarkovsky proud), set shots with three distinct windows, shots through doorways at very long distances—Roy Andersson’s cinematic paintings would be a good comparison

there are 40-50+ worthy of praise- certainly one of the strongest here

a focus on the background in every scenario

  • Dennehy provides the voice-over- he’s writing letters to an 18th century French Architect (Étienne-Louis Boullée). You can almost feel Greenaway (who also wrote the screenplay) nodding to himself here as the architect laments how underrated and underappreciated an artist Boullée is/was).
  • Like all of Greenaway’s work, it is defiantly intellectual (more referential than a Woody Allen film) and proudly esoteric (few auteurs worked with this kind of ambition with this tiny of a target audience).

    columns as frames within the frame… here…

…and here

  • I’ve mentioned the skill Greenaway has with proportion (like that of an architect)—but there are 40-50 prime-for-the-wall-in-a-museum arrangements and frames : including the baths scene, the bedroom with Dennehy in the doorway, the giant bowls of green fits table setting, the tableau in front of the Pantheon, the red room with the flowing red curtains—these on the page are just a few…

    another shot often repeated– like say Kurosawa or Wes Anderson- Greenaway seems to always take specific measurements for each frame

a dogged approach to both background and décor

countless cinematic paintings– leaving every other film from 1987 in its wake…


  • Leaning Masterpiece