1981-1990ArthousePeter GreenawayUnited Kingdom

Peter Greenaway – A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

I know one fact about this didactic director, Peter Greenaway—that he is a painter—and that is all I need to know. Everything falls in to place. He composes every frame, meticulously, based on the fundamentals of classical design and structure as if any frame could be snatched from the reel and hung at the Tate. This is the art of cinematography, and he is a master.

A summary of A Zed and Two Noughts, or most any Greenaway film would be like briefly describing the Sistine Chapel—and it takes the Big Book to do that. This film is a lesson in dichotomy: life/death, birth/decay, everything and nothing. He reminds us that our own redemption lies in the cyclical aspect of nature and the blending of these universal opposites into the dizzying blur of existence.

A Zed and Two Noughts—ZOO—is a rich feast for the universal food chain. It begins at the end, meaning, the beginning of the end for its characters. In a freak accident (swan vs. automobile), the 2 passengers killed are the wives of two brothers who work at the Zoo: Oliver Deuce, an animal behaviorist, studies the lives and habits of animals; Oswald, a microbiologist, studies the variety of life forms that thrive upon death. The brothers obsess on their tragedy and attempt to comprehend its meaning in their individual ways. Curiosity about the processes of their science, once so clinical and removed, now fascinates them to the point of morbidity. Everyone and everything is subjected to analysis, until they themselves are finally sacrificed. In watching, we ponder the elusive qualities of existence, see the cosmic concepts of opposition, played out through the recurrence of black and white—”Is a zebra a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes?”—which pass through the spectral arc and end in the murky ooze from whence life came.

This film is not illustrated text—the storyline merely forms the foundation necessary to understand the images and concepts Greenaway presents. He uses his characters as they use each other, a means to dissect the world in order to understand it. Greenaway is not a storyteller in the common cinematic sense; rather, he has made manifest the adage “a picture paints a thousand words”. Not that the dialogue is unimportant—everything here is important—but it more provides guidance for the viewer who is used to being “told.”

We are provided obvious clues: the brothers’ names both begin with “O” and their surname is “Deuce”; later, as it becomes more difficult to tell them apart, we discover they are twins. The crash survivor whom they come to both love and torture, Alba Bewick (the swan that caused the accident was a white Bewick) loses her legs, and she is juxtaposed by a bizarre seamstress and bestial storyteller named Venus de Milo (rendering her symbolically armless). Greenaway makes us consider common things in new ways, which is the proof of any artist, in any medium, whose work lasts over time.

There is no sentimentality here—Greenaway is not Renoir. He deconstructs the world and reorganizes it through his lens. He shows us in vivid detail how simply we are all the same; how quickly and easily we, the highest life forms, become the fodder of the lowest. This is high-calorie food for thought, presented in a dazzling, decomposing buffet that both attracts and repels us. Nothing pretty here, but this film is stunning, frame by frame, layer by methodically decaying layer.

2.73GB | 1 h 56 min | 960×576 | mkv



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