A Zed And Two Noughts(1985)Directed by Peter Greenaway
“Don’t ruin the ending I’m going to take it in stages, needs absorbing. I’m sure I got it wrong before and I want to look out for clues.”“What sort of clues?”“I’m going to try to separate the true clues from the red herrings”Two men discussing a documentary on the “Origin Of Life”A Zed and Two Noughts begins with a car crash in front of a neon blue “Zoo” sign. The crash occurs on Swan Road and two of the three passengers (the wives of two zoologists) are killed and the driver is maimed (necessitating her leg be amputated). A swan had somehow gotten out of the zoo and wandered into the street causing the accident, as the driver just happened to be wearing a white feather coat.The surviving husbands Oswald and Oliver (who are rarely referred to by name), cope with grief in similar and opposite ways, they both check out an 8 part documentary series on “the origins of life on earth” (which one watches in the zoo’s screening room while the other on VHS at home).One brother turns his lab into a dark room full of dozens of camera’s photographing, for months, “the process of decay over time” on the corpses of the zoo’s animals and plants. The other in honor of his deceased wife’s distaste for zoos begins little by little releasing more and more animals from their cages. Both bothers begin sleeping with a well versed literary pornographer, and aspiring Anais Nin, who tells stories like “the obscene animal's enclosure”.They also booth become obsessed with the absurdity of the accident; two zoologists wives, swan road, the rogue swan, and the white feather coat, seem too close a coincidence to be random. Where one brother, who frees animals, thinks the accident must have meaning, “how did everything in the universe fit together so perfectly to come to resemble this moment”, the other photographing decay, sees symmetry disturbed, the “first effect of decay is to spoil all the balance”.They are incomplete half’s without their spouses, just as the crash’s survivor(Andréa Ferréol) is incomplete without her leg. The three of them begin, first separately then altogether, a relationship triangle. Andréa Ferréol becomes the subject of her surgeon’s obsession as well, who insists on ever more complicated surgeries and check up’s to follow.After each of these surgeries she wakes horrified to find herself dressed to resemble a painting the surgeon admired, but she keeps going back. The surgeon is paying the pornographer to keep the brothers away from his new prize. There are other minor but ever present characters floating throughout the story, like an animal dealer, who begins killing of the zoo’s animals to satisfy the brothers increasing demand for fresh corpses to add to their collection. A Zed and Two Noughts is proof positive that some films demand multiple viewings.I feel like I had a partial understanding of the movie my first view, and a little bit of appreciation, but it felt like a bundle of dark Euro art film cliche’s, that had a startling similarity to David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”, simply better photographed. After a second viewing, the performances, mis en scene, dialogue, and editing found a right a balance. Nearly every scene in the film is framed with symmetricality in mind, and in most, there is no camera movement or close ups. Balance and design is the defining visual feature of the film, it uses the same sets again and again shuffling its characters like toys through the rooms in a dollhouse. Peter Greenaway makes the psychological sensation of loss and the philosophical sensation of absence a visual arts problem and geometric issue; we understand the world in terms of binary and can’t cope with it otherwise. “Look at them using me as subject for art theory and biology lessons”, sardonically moans Ferréol, whose other leg is eventually removed. Whether she is fully amputated for symmetries sake or to improve her spine is left ambiguous, her untrustworthy surgeon argues, “They are the same thing”. The brother’s confess to Ferréol they were actually born Siamese twins but separated at birth and told by their mother to never tell anyone. After this they begin dressing the same, then wearing joint outfits that allow them to stay physically connected at all times. Though ridiculous at first the brother’s despair does subside in their joint bodies (though no one can tell them apart anymore), but their intense fear of being alone/asymmetrical has also completely crystallized. Their fears are mirrored when the now Ferréol meets and marries an amputated man, “a more suitable father”. The Zoo also runs a scam where animals are intentionally maimed in order to be used in experimental medical procedures.One of the first scenes before the title credits, symbolically loaded in retrospect, is of one of the brothers photographing a legless ape walking on its arms. They profit from the asymmetry, as do the brothers from the dead animals, and the pornographer and the doctor from the brother’s misfortune in the accident. The asymmetry itself is perhaps part of the greater balance; “it’s the circle of life” as Mufasa would say. In the final scene the brothers leave a camera outside to photograph two corpses. Time elapses and we see that the corpses the cameras and the equipment have become covered in snails, who the brothers had described earlier as “…Natures agents of decay. They help things decompose…Hermaphrodites perfectly complete and able to satisfy their own sexual needs.” These “agents of decay” and I would imagine “Time” as well, will eventually decompose even they’re records of decomposition. It’s a complex movie, to say the least, but it’s also full of dry black humor and sharp wit (“My daughter, she says my leg has walked off with a Dutchman”.) clever and crisp editing, and brilliant use of colors. The neon “Zoo” sign is only the first of many dazzling visual displays of light, like the darkroom/lab where the photographs are being taken, which looks as one character recounts “like a thousand lighthouses”, or scenes in the brother’s apartment when lights from the city below streak the blinds and across the walls. The only film I can think of to use color like this besides Peter Greenaway’s earlier “The Cook, The Thief, The Wife, and Her Lover”, is the last Technicolor film Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”. The music, repetitive and hypnotic, I believe is in part by Brian Eno. The title refers to an ongoing discussion in the film about whether or not the Zebra is a black animal with white stripes or a white animal with black ones. “I think my cinema is better understood in terms of criticism generally applied to the pictorial traditions and the history of art. Sometimes I feel I'm a hippopotamus in a giraffe race”.-Peter GreenawaySince I started this review, I watched “A Zed And Two Noughts” again, and I noticed details I didn’t see before. I have no doubt that I will notice new things next time I watch it. Zebras may not change their stripes, but is it possible they switch them around when were not looking?