A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

Director: Peter Greenaway. Music: Michael Nyman
Starring. Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Andrea Ferreol, Frances Barber UK/Netherlands. 1h 51m.

It’s impossible to mention Greenaway without Nyman, the two work so well together (until their falling out.. ) but it’s noteworthy to mention that this is the first collaboration with cinematographer Sacha Vierny and who he referred to as the most important collaborator, Vierny passed in the 1990s.

The film has lots of subtexts; the first is loss and grieving. Twin zoologists, Oswald and Oliver Deuce are at work studying animal behaviour when their wives are killed in a car tragic accident involving a large white swan which crashes through the windscreen, the eccentric woman who was driving the car, Alba Bewick (Ferreol) survives but has to have her leg amputated.

A woman associated with the zoo, Venus de Milo (Barber) attempts to entice the twins, initially to help them recover from their loss,  but there are other more selfish motives. All the time Oswald and Oliver become obsessed with death and decay and begin creating time lapse videos of decomposing life forms, the first is a green apple with one bite taken out slowly rots in from of the camera lense.

So what is it all about anyway, birth, death, loss, decay, the Garden of Eden and angels, bad sex, the devil and god, immortality and rebirth? The cerebral detachment present in most of Greenaway’s early films brings everything together in this sexually charged look at our abuse of nature and need to return from the rest of the natural world, our sense of wanting to be one, filling that gap we feel after loss.

Instead of a formula the film spirals and increases with ferocity the twin’s obsession with death through decay rather than decay being a by-product it’s the drug for them. They spend a majority of the film stripping themselves bare, sometimes quite literally, breaking themselves down mentally and physically trying to find a place to be one.

A lot can be said about the dramatic forced symmetry throughout this film, it’s common knowledge that Greenaway spends a lot of time studying fine art and classical painting, here he often displays the dead animal studies as if he were setting up an easel to paint a still life, and often the animals are exotic and posed to perfection. But the forced symmetry is everywhere, in every scene, and where there is no symmetry things slowly line up. Alba loses one leg in the accident, she then has the other amputated, she sleeps with both of the twins, and has two babies, but married a man with no legs to raise the children, creating a symmetrical family, she’s also the angel aspect, often in white with her bedhead creating a halo in most scenes, until she gives birth and starts wearing pale pink, and her halo suddenly disappears, the use of colours isn’t as magnified as in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) but it’s follows characters through the movie and reflects the narrative subtly.

It’s no surprise that the twins start to seek death, at first the plot is to film alba’s demise at her family home in L’escargot, but they formulate a new slimy plan after the birth of her children. The film starts with the death of their wives, seated next to each other in a car driven by alba and ends with the brothers laying naked next to each other on a board in a field in France contemplating an unusual suicide, the cycle of death leads to more death and in between there is sex and religion the death of animals leads to the death of men as Darwin predicted.

Like the title this film deals with so many subjects without actually saying it, it’s not a Zoo it’s made up of smaller less desirable components, when we say a word do we really mean everything that is associated with it, spell it out and suddenly we have to think quite intently on each individual items, but also like there fill there is a couple, the twins, the two noughts, what are they without each other? Without their wives?

Rating 9/10

R – The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989)
L – A-Z of Surreal Movies
A – 100 Things I love about A Zed & Two Naughts
5s – Peter Greenaway

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