A Zed and Two Noughts

December 28, 2011

The plot is set in motion by a car hitting a swan and killing two passengers. The first real line of dialogue is, “How fast does a woman decompose?” The main characters are Siamese twins who were once joined at the ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle.

This is the world of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, a relentlessly bizarre film that is being marketed as this year’s Blue Velvet. Actually, it’s much more surreal and arch than Blue Velvet, but it shares with that film the capacity for inspiring intense arguments.

Greenaway is the British director who made a splash a few years back with The Draughtsman’s Contract, an elegantly elaborate tease. A Zed and Two Noughts—the title is a tricky way of spelling “zoo”—is even more calculated to infuriate, as it piles riddle upon enigma; there are times when the movie resembles a particularly complicated Tom Stoppard play being interpreted by Stanley Kubrick in a nasty mood.

These twins (played by Brian and Eric Deacon) have lost their wives in the car crash caused by the errant swan. Both work at the zoo (the city is unidentified, although it was filmed in Rotterdam), and both find morbid fascination in filming and then viewing the decomposition of various plants and animals.

They also remain in the company of the woman (Andréa Ferréol) who was driving the car that struck the swan. Both men become obsessed by her; she goes through the movie gradually losing her limbs, which are amputated for dubious medical reasons.

Uh…that’s enough plot. No recounting of the film’s action can convey the weird, ironic, grotesque experience of watching the film itself. Greenaway the draughtsman is building a labyrinth, a maze I found eminently provocative.

Greenaway often seems to be too clever for his own good, but he has some suggestive things to say about the way we live, not to mention the way we die and decompose. Whether it’s legitimately effective as a movie, or fundamentally a big, impressive dead-end—well, that can be a starting point for the arguments. Which is probably the way Greenaway likes it.

First published in the Herald, 1988

Still in the early blush of Greenaway’s career here. I’m not sure when this review ran, but the movie opened at the Market theater, and it really did start some arguments.