“Grief doesn’t flavour anything. It’s just sour.”
In Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts, the wives of twin zoologists Oliver (Eric Deacon) and Oswald Deuce (Brian Deacon) are killed in a freak car accident outside of a zoo. The driver, a woman named Alba (Andrea Ferreol) is pulled from the wreckage. Alba survives, but her leg is amputated. Oliver and Oswald are deeply grief-stricken, and they become obsessed with decay and the process of the body’s decomposition. Oscar and Oswald return to science to solve the questions they have about life and death. Oscar and Oswald initially blame Alba for the deaths of their wives, but a firm bond gradually develops between these three characters who are all mired in the grief process. The mysterious Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) is the fourth main character in the film. Venus is a teller of dirty stories who entertains the brothers while attempting to sway them from their grief.
A great deal of the film’s action takes place in and around the zoo. Here, Oliver and Oswald conduct their experiments, which involve the decay of fruit, and then they progress to mapping the decay of dead animals. Most of the decay is recorded with time-delay photography, so the grosser elements of decomposition are structured to resemble a frantic, chaotic dance of sloughing tissue. I don’t have the strongest stomach for these sorts of things, but it wasn’t too traumatic to watch. Alba is also subjected to an experiment of sorts. She claims she is “an excuse for medical experiments and art theory”–her doctor, Van Meergen, is actually a veterinary surgeon who is obsessed with the Dutch painter, Vermeer. His obsession seems to include turning real people into a living canvas, and his unscrupulous approach to medicine is tainted by his desire to convert Alba into a Vermeer subject. Van Meergen states that the “first symptom of decay” is the destruction of symmetry. Hence, Alba’s decay begins when she loses one leg. Symbolically, Oliver and Oswald attempt to restore symmetry by “joining” bodies in a suit sewed to encompass both of them. As the film progresses, Oliver and Oswald grow increasingly more alike, until they appear practically identical.
If this all sounds a bit bizarre, then you’re on the right track. A Zed and Two Noughts is one of Peter Greenaway’s most difficult and complex films. It’s also one of the least accessible. A Zed and Two Noughts is the first Greenaway film to team producer Kees Kasander, Sacha Vierny (cinematographer), and Michael Nyman (musical score) with director, Greenaway, and this highly successful team is responsible for Greenaway’s most fascinating films. A Zed and Two Noughts is visually a stunning film. Each scene is an exercise in perfection. The film’s failure, however, comes in its characterizations. Alba’s accent is extremely strong, and some of her best lines are practically indecipherable. While the three main characters are motivated by grief, they remain remote and unrealistic, and they exist to promote the film’s ideas and are often quite subordinate to the sets. Nothing exists in the film by accident–all is design, symmetry, and symbolism. And if the film watcher is intrigued by Greenaway, then unraveling the symbolism of this intricate film will delight. If, however, you are new to Greenaway, I recommend you start elsewhere–with one of the more accessible films, Pillow Book or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover for example. Build up to A Zed and Two Noughts. This one is for die-hard Greenaway fans. If you enjoy A Zed and Two Noughts I also recommend David Croenenberg’s film, Dead Ringers.