Film Reviews

A Zed and Two Noughts Peter Greenaway

Rating - 8/10

In a formal introduction included with the Zeitgeist DVD release of A Zed and Two Noughts, writer and director Peter Greenaway discusses the concept of three films struggling to emerge in his cryptic 1985 production.  One portion involves the idea of twinship and symmetry, the second concerns natural history and evolutionary theory, and the third is a sustained experimentation or manipulation of natural and artificial cinema lighting.  While a sense of modesty is affixed to his comments, in all actuality, these separate analyses or microfilms not only properly emerge but flourish greatly in his comedic yet darkly stylistic and intellectual environment.  Further, Greenaway exhibits regard for high art in the vein of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, symmetrical composition, and stop-motion photography as well as the general avant-garde lattice that shapes his cryptic narrative and zany zoo of characters.  Through the multi-layered stages of the film, a universal theme examines the order of death and decay as a means to comprehend dramatic emotional events in human life.  Although one could accuse Greenaway of ultimately reducing his characters to mere specimens in a proverbial menagerie for a scientific and social research, his intentions are routinely unique and beguilingly valid.

Despite initial questions that may arise concerning character superficiality, the film's inexorable and comprehensive focuses on form and decomposition are worthy of scrutiny.  In recurring circumstances, Greenaway favors wide-angled shots to construct perfectly symmetrical images with his characters and objects in precise arrangement.  For example, when brothers Oliver and Oswald Deuce visit the one-legged Alba Bewick in her hospital bed after the opening scene's car accident, the stationary camera sits at a safe distance (a medium-long shot) with the two men equidistant to her on opposite sides.  A table with a flower arrangement rests directly in front of Alba while two beds, chairs and nightstands mirror one another in the frame.  Utilized to strengthen the film's core ideas as well as its artistic sensibilities, this type of manufactured setup is an elaboration on the process of filmmaking itself, particularly when juxtaposed with the experimentation of light fixtures that project specific character temperament.  By contrast, Greenaway actively exploits figures with missing limbs for counterbalance or to disrupt the symmetry of composition.  At the midpoint of the film, Alba, persuaded to remove her other leg by the veterinary surgeon, Han van Meegeren, deplores, "Why do we have to have two of everything?"  Oswald responds, "Symmetry is all," while Oliver echoes, "We're twins," with a facetiously serious grin.  Of course the meta-commentary within this brief exchange involves the filmmaker's compositional philosophy as well as two brothers' increasing awareness of their own interchangeable habits and mannerisms.

The B-side to the emphasis on premeditated compositions is the recurrence of decomposing images in nature, notably the stop-motion decay of organisms.  Greenaway efficaciously uses the sequences as a sort of paleontological flipbook to transition between scenes but also to represent the cycle of life as he explicates the advance of the evolutionary chain beginning with primitive shellfish, then progressing to reptiles, birds (a swan), mammals (a zebra), and finally humans.  Because the brothers both occupy the zoologist profession and are fascinated with biological study (Oliver in fact laments early in the film how "it's fun watching life begin, because he knows how it ends"), the film is injected with a multitude of references to the phenomenology of the world as delivered by Charles Darwin, a revered figure in the landscape of Greenaway's filmography.  Complementarily, the film actively ponders scientific inquiry through the integration of biological and evolutionary developmental television programs narrated by the legendary naturalist broadcaster David Attenborough.  But the most unusual use of animals in the film is prompted by the presence of snails that Oliver proclaims are "a nice primitive form of life" that help the world decay.  He adds, "and they're hermaphrodites that can satisfy their own sexual needs."  While A Zed and Two Noughts is certainly an exercise in the arts and sciences, it frequently digresses into intense sexual perversion, which is observed when prostitute Venus de Milo shares a conversation with Oliver after a night of presumed sexual exploration and again with the legless Felipe about mythological interbreeding.  In the latter sequence, a zebra concurrently paces in and out of the frame's right corner while Venus and Felipe deliberate a zebra/human centaur and the subject of bestiality.  Sexual subtext also pervades Oliver and Oswald's decomposing medical experiments at the zoo that eventually transfer onto the field of human putrefaction.  Greenaway even describes the brothers' theatricality as a "biological theater," which eventually develops its own deviant narrative by the film's end.

Besides an indelible homage to the forefathers Bergman and Resnais, Greenaway's stint as a painting student at Walthamstow College of Art frequently spills into his cinematic narratives, and the all-encompassing influence of seventeenth century Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer progressively permeates A Zed and Two Noughts.  Appreciation of Vermeer, the exuberant manipulator of light and widely-regarded premiere cinematographer, abundantly appears to extrapolate the cryptic mystery of the film and complement Greenaway's own artistic process.  In the more overt utilization in the final quarter of the work, Vermeer's companion paintings "Geographer" and "Astronomer" float like halos immediately above Oliver and Oswald who rest nude and crosslegged on conjoined chairs below.  The paintings' and brothers' eerily supplementary natures seek a transcendent message of the intimate relationship between composition and the artist.  Additionally, the presence of Vermeer also facilitates a unique sense of historical fiction within the film; by inventing a secondary fictitious wife for Vermeer and adapting the character of Han van Meegeren, an actual forger of Vermeer's Baroque paintings, as a doctor, Greenaway lucratively establishes another microfilm in itself.  Of course this tangled historical web is an encrypted reference that again represents the struggle of the artist, Greenaway's efforts to create a true vision from his influences are blatantly evident.  Moreover, Oliver and Oswald seek to maintain their sense of scientific integrity as provocateurs, and as a final historical footnote separate from the film, Vermeer inadvertently struggled with proper recognition in the light of van Meegeren's plagiarism after his own death.

Any notions of impenetrability in Greenaway's catalogue are offset by a penchant for self-referential black humor that frequently involves a signature brand of rhetorical questioning.  While coping with grief in the first two acts of the film, Oliver expresses the incident of his wife's death by a swan on Swan's Way as "bizarre, tragic and farcical," which functions as an apt four-word summary for A Zed and Two Noughts.  Accordingly, verbose rhetorical questions integrated into general dialogue playfully illuminate Greenaway's inner workings as an artistic philosopher.  As projected on the DVD's title menu, "Is leglessness a form of contraception?" and "How fast does a woman decompose?" are among many that Greenaway wittily tosses around through the film's 117 minutes that fuel a conscious debate beyond its own parameters.  The overarching didactic nature of A Zed and Two Noughts advocates amorphous moods and a peculiar sense of horror as well; in that way, the film is a perfect precursor to David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988) with its study of twin brothers' multifarious and distorted relationship to each other and the women in their lives.  The biological focus in Greenaway's film is replaced by a more decisive medical or gynecological one in Dead Ringers, but the films' intersections are intelligibly drawn.  And while there may be three or more films competing for attention in A Zed and Two Noughts itself, it is a near-masterpiece of the auteur and an instructive exercise in the cinematic arts that is not easily forgotten.