A Zed & Two Noughts

A Zed & Two Noughts

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The basic story of Peter Greenaway's second fictional feature is very simple. Two brothers lose their wives in the same car accident caused by an errant swan and become obsessed both with the notion of decay and death, and with the driver of the car. At the same time the car's driver also becomes the obsession of a third man, a Vermeer-wannabe surgeon, who sees her body - now one leg short - as an artistic homage in progress to the Dutch master. But even if the major plot points can be summed up in a sentence or two, the artistic and philosophical questions Greenaway seeks to explore could fill the pages of many a film student's notebook.

Even the title, a description of the spelling of the word "zoo" - a term here that refers not just to the actual place where the brothers work, but in wider terms to the metaphorical "cages" we all inhabit in the world - is drenched in symbolism, from the Os representing the brothers Oswald and Oliver, to notions of eternity, eggs and, by extension, creation, called to mind by the circular letter.

Copy picture

Artifice is, in many ways, everything to Greenaway. He loves to strip any sort of naturalism away and thrust the inherent 'construction' of filmmaking into the face of his audience. Paradoxically, here, he is also preoccupied with the natural world and ecological order of things, so that the action is punctuated by stop-motion footage from the brothers' experiments with death, as they photograph dead animals rotting. What emerges is a darkly comic satire concerning the nature of humans and our relationship to the world around us that is so full of ideas that it threatens to come apart at the seams.

Even Greenaway himself admits in the commentary track that accompanies the film's latest release, that he should "acknowledge" the fact that it is "too complex" and that second works "can be rather laboured". The level of detail here is practically baroque, where even a tag on a dead dog's collar, reading "Dido" rather than "Fido", is, you suspect, intended - for the eagle-eyed and classically inclined - to recall the Queen of Carthage's suicide.

The only trouble with having so many ideas jostling for attention is that the characters and their emotions get drowned out. Although we see the physical effects that their wives' deaths wreak on Oswald and Oliver (real-life brothers Brian and Eric Deacon), their emotional motivations remain frustratingly foggy. Secondary characters, such as zoo prostitute Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) and the one-legged Alba (Andréa Ferréol), also feel like untouchable constructions, purely there to illustrate an argument, rather than for the viewer to connect with.

However, despite overkill in the ideas department, which many will find too pretentious for comfort or coherence, visually, Zed is a masterpiece.

Enlisting the help of French nouvelle vague cinematographer Sacha Vierny, the men decided to use, if at all possible, 26 different types of light, while simultaneously attempting to emulate the textures and colours of Vermeer. The result is simply stunning, with Greenaway breathing still life into almost every scene. It is made all the more visually arresting by a preoccupation with symmetry, the idea of which grows in importance throughout the film. Talk of conundrums such as whether a zebra is a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes, may seem somewhat pointless, but when you see a "striped" theme inventively repeated visually throughout the runtime it has a compelling resonance, bolstered by the musical perpetual motion of Michael Nyman's insistent and distinctive scoring.

With Greenaway's second film, there is probably more joy to be found in the admiration of his visual puzzle as there is in trying to deconstruct it. Certainly, it is more interesting to consider than to watch - but you'll be considering it for a considerable time.

Reviewed on: 08 Sep 2010
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Two brothers become obssessed with decay after the simultaneous deaths of their wives.
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Director: Peter Greenaway

Writer: Peter Greenaway

Starring: Andréa Ferréol, Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Frances Barber, Joss Ackland, Jim Davidson, Agnès Brulet, Guusje van Tilborgh, Gerard Thoolen, Ken Campbell, Wolf Kahler, Geoffrey Palmer, David Attenborough

Year: 1985

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Netherlands

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