A Film Rumination: A Zed & Two Noughts, Peter Greenaway (1985)

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8/10 (Very Good)

Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts is a fascinating take (both visually and plot-wise) on the archetypal theme of coping with death.  Greenaway’s technical abilities shine through — especially his haunting time-lapse photography of decaying animals interspersed with Michael Nyman’s repetitive minimalist score — and many of the standard Greenaway traits prevalent in his later films are present — his obsession with Dutch painters, placing his characters in visually arresting still life-like tableaus, etc.

A Zed & Two Noughts marked a substantial departure from his previous film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982).  Gone is the historical local.  Gone are the lush costumes.  Instead, the local of this vaguely contemporary tale is strangely transformed by Greenaway’s camera.  Everything is symmetrical.  Everything craws with animals.  Occasionally, a location is represented by a single still that moves in the breezes ever so slightly.  Color/texture is everything.

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The plot (some spoilers):  two naturalist brothers (played by Brian and Eric Deacon) grieve over the death of both of their wives in a car crash caused by an escaped swan from the zoo.  The car’s driver, Alba Bewick (played by the well-known Andéa Ferréol) mirraculously survives but loses her leg.  Both brothers, in an effort to get over the deaths, decide to construct elaborate time lapse photography of decaying animals (moving up the food chain).  Also, both fall in love with Alba.  Other plot elements entwine with the central story: the dead animals used in the time-lapse photography are supplied by shady figures at the Zoo (filmed at the Amsterdam Zoo).  At the same time, Alba’s doctor, convinces her that she needs her other leg amputated in a nefarious scheme to get her to fit in his recreation of various Johannes Vermeer paintings.

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To enjoy Greenaway one must accept heavy-handed (but spectacular) visuals, explicit male and female nudity (rarely sensual or erotic), relatively poor acting, repetitive Nyman scores, and uneven writing (done by Greenaway himself).  However, A Zed & Two Noughts maintains a strange/disturbing appeal.  Despite the audience figuring out the rest of the plot about half-way through, the film is actually quite streamlined and concise which is astounding considering Greenaway’s normal tendencies.  I found this was his best written film and I rarely cringed at the acting.  Ultimately, the film rings on the hollow side.  We don’t really empathize with the characters.  We don’t understand their motivations (especially during the film’s last act).  Actions are often contrived.

Too often we see Greenaway the provocateur instead of consummate artist (for example the listless second half of his latest film Nightwatching) — thankfully, A Zed & Two Noughts rarely falls into that trap.  All in all, this is his best constructed film plot-wise and visually that I’ve seen yet (if only I could track down Prospero’s Books).  A truly unsettling and hallucinatory experience….

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3 thoughts on “A Film Rumination: A Zed & Two Noughts, Peter Greenaway (1985)”

  1. Finally watched this one. I had a false start as I was eating some sandwiches and quickly realized I’d better try again when not eating. I have found myself thinking about this film over the past day, so it has succeeded on that level. Also I had recently read a book which went into detail on every Vermeer painting so I recognized all the references. I thought the ending (the very, very end) tied it all up nicely. It seems people love or hate this one–I think I’m right in the middle–your analysis is dead on.

  2. I still think Greenaway’s films are visually more interesting than their plot, philosophical, or thematic treatments… I really wish he would get a real writer to write the scripts — his dialogue is horridly stilted. This is still his best film — but I really need to track down Prospero’s Books and The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (but netflix doesn’t have either film).

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