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A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Zoo: A Zed & Two Noughts

an original, full of ideas.

Directed by:

Peter Greenaway

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 112 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: Netherlands, United Kingdom

One evening, a low-flying swan collides with a car driving along Swan(n)'s Way, killing two female passengers instantly. Their husbands, Oliver and Oswald Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon), biologists working for the same zoo who also happen to be brothers and, as it turns out, siamese twins separated since childhood, are left to pick up the shattered glass, feathers and egg which is their lives. Unhinged by grief, they attempt to understand so unlikely an event by studying the Darwinian origins of life and its eschatology through David Attenborough documentaries and experiments involving biological decomposition. At the same time they strike up a bizarre relationship with Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferréol), the sole survivor of the accident, who has one of her legs amputated after the other by her Vermeer-obsessed doctor van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen) as he tries to transform her into the subject of one of his favourite paintings. The twins' strange quest reunites them, even as it brings them to an inevitable conclusion.

There has always been a playful continuity between Peter Greenaway's different projects, as though they are all set in the same lunatic universe (or in this case, zoo), and 'A Zed and Two Noughts' is no exception. Its opening accident recalls Greenaway's 1980 masterpiece 'The Falls', a three-hour mockumentary which listed 92 casualties of an improbable avian catastrophe (and the manager of the zoo, played by Geoffrey Palmer, shares his name, Fallast, with one of the subjects of 'The Falls'). Also included are Greenaway's usual obsessions with catalogues, alphabets and landscapes – and the keeper of the owls, Van Hoyten (Joss Ackland), has a name familiar from a number of Greenaway's earlier films – or as one character in 'A Zed and Two Noughts' puts it, “I'm not sure that Van Hoyten is always the same person”.

Yet despite the impossibility of mistaking 'A Zed and Two Noughts' as anyone else's work, it is not amongst Greenaway's best films. Overambitious from the start, this symmetrical tale of twins ends up being too clever by half, throwing more ideas in the air than either the viewer, or indeed the director, can properly juggle. Certainly Greenaway's idea of experimenting with twenty-six different light sources, in order to approximate the subtle use of light in Vermeer's paintings, makes the film stunningly beautiful to look at, as does the painterly cinematography realised by Sacha Vierny – and Michael Nyman's soundtrack is as majestically fey as ever. Yet the characters are too soulless, and the drama too clinical, to inspire the average filmgoer to give 'A Zed and Two Noughts' the multiple viewings its complexity demands.

In short, Greenaway's eccentric exploration of where all life's absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.

It's Got: A tale-telling seamstress-cum-prostitute (Frances Barber) interested in coupling with a zebra, a rhino wandering free in a Rotterdam square, sex without legs attached, reconstructions of various Vermeer paintings, armies of snails and vast amounts of vegetable and animal putrescence.

It Needs: Greater coherence, reduced ambition.

DVD Extras Excellent animated menus (with option for French); optional French/Dutch subtitles; trailers for A Zed and Two Noughts and The Draughtsmans Contract; seven minutes of pointless behind-the-scenes material extracted from the documentary ?O, ZOO! (and set to very cheesy 80s synth-pop). Best of all is the close collaboration of Greenaway himself, who has written the sleevenotes, filmed a concise six minute introduction to the film, and taped a full-length audio commentary, in which, with characteristic erudition, he discusses topics ranging from the films title, the problematic status of second films, the architecture of the Rotterdam zoo, the patience required for butterfly wrangling, his admiration for Darwinism, the histories of Vermeer and his faker van Meegeren, the films influence on David Cronenbergs Deadringers, the difficulty of obtaining a dead zebra in Europe, and how he regards A Zed and Two Noughts as an imperfect child and the film he would most like to remake. Rather distractingly, Greenaway insists on referring to Alba Bewicks property in the film as Arc-en-ciel, and interpreting the significance of this, whereas even a casual viewing of the film reveals that the property is in fact called Lescargot - although Arc-en-ciel does turn up as the surname of the legless horse-fetishist Felipe whom Alba eventually marries... DVD Extras Rating: 8/10

Alternatives:

Dead Ringers

Summary

While it is hard to look away from a messy accident (especially when a low-flying swan is involved), that does not mean that the spectacle is especially pleasurable. Still, even when Peter Greenaway is not on his best form, his films are always well worth seeing – and 'A Zed and Two Noughts' is certainly an original, and full (too full, even) of ideas.

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