“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts
FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon,
PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.
- This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
- Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
- In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
- Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
- On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.
Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts
COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes with a birth that is quickly followed by more death. In between is amputation, classical and Biblical references, recreations of paintings by Johannes Vermeer, a David Attenborough documentary on life on earth, an aspiring pornographess, a grey market in animal corpses, ambivalent non-identical Siamese twins, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” a woman in a red ostrich-feather hat, inconvenient snails, zoo politics, decay turned into art, and much, much more. A Zed and Two Noughts is overstuffed with ideas and learned allusions, which makes it almost impossible to follow according to our normal strategies of viewing a movie—a frustrating experience for many viewers, but a rewarding one for the more adventurous among us.
This is not to say that Zed is a plotless or random parade of scenes; far from it. It is most certainly a narrative film with a beginning, middle and end, where each actions causes a result. The story is not spoon-fed to the viewer, however, and nor do the characters’ motivations flow from realistic or recognizable human sources. The players are instead symbolic presences, like the actors in a Greek myth. It begins with the death of the two wives of the two brothers, and death will be the movie’s major theme. The brothers grieve over the loss of their spouses, but more as a means of establishing the reality of the situation than as an excuse to explore their emotions. They are ultimately motivated by intellectual curiosity rather than sorrow. Soon after the accident, they dispassionately wonder how long it takes a woman’s body to decompose. Oliver, the more analytical of the brothers, screens a David Attenborough documentary on the origins of life, trying to find “clues” as to how the long chain of evolution has led to the absurd death of his wife at the wings of an accidental swan. He also films the decay of increasingly complex lifeforms, beginning with an apple to (eventually) large mammals, and enlists his brother Oswald in the obsessive project. “What valuable conclusion can be gained from all this rotting meat?,” asks the zoo administrator, phrasing the film’s key concern. The brothers’ investigation of the meaning of life and death, through an evolutionary and zoological lens, guides the flow of the plot, although other considerations—their sexual desire for the legless Alba, Alba’s perverse fascination with her own amputation, and a revelation about the brothers’ past—all decorate the delightfully baroque story.
There is weirdness aplenty in A Zed and Two Noughts, largely of a playful intellectual sort. There are characters who simply make no rational sense—or rather, the problem is that they only make rational sense, being clear symbolic inventions by Greenaway to illustrate philosophical concepts or scholarly jokes. Take the zoo-based prostitute (!) named Venus De Milo (!!) who accepts animal parts as payment for her services longs to be taken seriously as a writer of bestiality erotica. Then there’s a character named Caterina Bolnes, who shares a name with Vermeer’s wife, and has the bizarre red feather headress from a Vermeer painting permanently affixed to her head. She’s married to Dr. Van Hoyten, a manipulator full of dark schemes who’s both a mad scientist obsessed with amputation and a dedicated recreator of Vermeer canvases. Greenaway stages events theatrically, with scorn for psychological realism. Take, for example, the scene where Alba announces she is pregnant. The dialogue—which includes rhetorical questions like “is leglessness a form of contraception?” and “what is a few spermatozoa between brothers?”—is exchanged in short, sing-song bursts between the the legless woman and her twin paramours. Line readings are deliberately melodramatic, and the brothers alternately piston up and down on one knee on either side of her, while the lighting rhythmically and inexplicably cycles between bright and dark, as if regularly-spaced clouds are passing by an unseen window. Although the exchange makes sense according to the internal logic of the plot, taken out of context—or put into the context of our everyday lives—it’s a completely absurd scenario. In each carefully constructed mise-en-scene, Greenaway tries his hardest to create a symmetrical frame, usually with Alba at the center and the twins on either side of her. From plot to set to dialogue, Greenaway stocks this zoo with his private language of signs and symbols.
And what a network of signs and symbols it is! In the director’s commentary Greenaway suggests that there are three films in one here: one about evolution, one about twins, and one about light (that last concern is technical rather than thematic, with his attempts to recreate the canvasses and lighting of Vermeer revealing the frustrated painter in him). But there are other structural forms hidden inside the script. Elsewhere, Greenaway suggests that the film is structured around the eight stages of evolution seen in the rotting carcasses (although I only count seven species of subjects—plants, crustaceans, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans, with the eighth being, perhaps, snails). The film also sometimes suggests it’s organized around an alphabetical bestiary, which Alba’s daughter Beta recites, from “ape” to “zebra.” At one early point, the brothers flank Alba; one toys with a plate of apples, the other with a stuffed zebra. Come to think of it, zebras—and black and white animals in general—are a constant recurring symbol, from the zebra-striped knickers to the actual corpse which serves as the brothers’ penultimate experiment in decay. The zebras stripes further suggest the bars of zoo cages, and the alternating dark and light patterns in a Vermeer painting, and are linked to a conundrum once posed to Darwin—is a zebra a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes? Then there’s the film’s concern with symmetry, seen in Greenaway’s constant artificial arrangement of figures in the frame, in Alba’s missing leg which destroys the symmetry of the human body, in the concept of Siamese twins, in the twinning of characters (legless Alba with a legless suitor, and with the nominally armless Venus de Milo)… There are references to Adam and Eve, juxtaposed to Darwinism. All of these symbols and signs, and more I’ve neglected for purposes of space or missed entirely, recur regularly throughout the script, a series of consistent concerns and references that constantly bump up against each other, suggesting new combinations and associations. Greenaway must have stuck a dozen or so topics for a master’s thesis into his sophomore film.
A Zed and Two Noughts seems like a scattershot collection of themes—evolution, death, symmetry, the limits of human knowledge, Vermeer—that just happened to be on Greenaway’s mind at the particular moment in his life when he wrote the script. But far from being a weakness, this almost zoological variety might be the film’s key asset. Zed is tight in its aesthetics and faithful to its bizarrely conceived formalist narrative, but it finds the freedom to be far-ranging and free-associative in its conceits. I’m not sure if it’s complexity hidden inside of simplicity, or the other way round, but this melange is assembled to mimic the richness and randomness of biological life. The movie operates according to rules and laws, but offers no answers. The brothers’ pursuit of the meaning of death inevitably leads them to encounter death directly; but their final act, itself purely symbolic and futile, is ironically undermined by a snail infestation. There is no grand unifying meaning here that can satisfy the tragic human longing for coherence and purpose, no valuable conclusion to be gained from all this rotting meat. While zebras, swans and snails all play important roles in this bestiary, the most important animal in ZOO is the red herring.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘A Zed and Two Noughts’ isn’t really absurdist. It’s pretentious, humorless and, worst of all, more boring than a retrospective devoted to television weather forecasts delivered over a 30-year period at 11 P.M., Eastern standard time… [it] is such a private film I hesitate to write more about it. I haven’t a clue as to what it’s supposed to be about.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“[Greenaway] tackles a dizzying number of topics including Darwinism vs. creationism, taxonomy, mortality, and the weird random patterns of fate on a level that makes Magnolia look facile by comparison… one of Greenaway’s most accomplished yet difficult films.”–Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Symmetry and Structure in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts – Analysis by Daniel Espejo for Senses of Cinema
HOME VIDEO INFO: The 2008 Zeitgeist DVD (buy) was used to compose this review. It’s got a wonderful title menu with memorable quotes from the film (“Is leglessness a form of contraception?”) It includes a Peter Greenaway commentary, as well as a separate 6-minute introduction to the film. Extras (here called the “Z+OO files”) include a behind-the-scenes thingamajig titled “?O, Zoo! Excerpts” (mostly shots of unidentified crew members walking around on the sets), the six time-lapse decay sequences featured in the film, “Snail Sketches” (self-explanatory), and the original trailer.
Comparison shopping suggests that these extras are essentially the same as the BFI-issued Blu-ray (buy), except that the BFI edition includes the early and otherwise unavailable Greenaway documentary short “The Sea in Their Blood,” a tour of the British coastline with a Michael Nyman score. It also includes a booklet with several supplemental essays, including one from Greenaway himself. A slight concern: the BFI page states that this is a Region B release, though all other sources (both from reviews and retailer descriptions) suggest it is in fact an all-regions disc. There may be two releases with different encodings, or (as seems more likely) the BFI page may be in error.