A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Peter Greenaway | 1hr 55min

A Zed and Two Noughts opens and closes with two pairs of deaths, its very structure marked by a symmetry that Peter Greenaway is compelled to tease out in meticulous detail. It is a fixation which extends to the pair of co-dependent twins at the film’s centre, both zoologists who bury themselves in their experiments to cope with the recent losses, attempting to reckon with the very nature of birth and death that spells out the fate of every life on Earth. The other obsession which carries them through is Alba – the woman whose car collision ended both their partners’ lives, and who is now recovering in hospital after having her leg amputated. It is a disturbingly twisted sort of love which forms between the three of them, driven by the same desire to understand that which has ruined their lives.

Opening with a sequence of gorgeous compositions, painting out images of loss and grief as the “ZOO” sign in the background gradually turns off, letter by letter.

But for Oswald and Oliver Deuce, none of their studies or affairs are attempts to achieve some greater power over their own mortality. It is knowledge they crave, sorted by neat labels and classifications. The zoo they work at is the perfect setting for this taxonomical compulsion, where creatures are kept in cages and examined like objects. The zebra becomes a powerful running metaphor for Greenaway, representing the duality of all life in its black and white patterns, as well as in its very name reaching from one end of the alphabet to the other. Later in the film it falls victim to the twins’ experiments, embodying both life and death in its decay, but that isn’t before we watch several other living organisms suffer the same fate in the name of science.

Therein lies the basis of the Deuces’ primary experiments: observing the decomposition of organic matter through time-lapse photography. Greenaway returns to these sped-up sequences over and over, and beneath the decay of plants and animals Michael Nyman’s jaunty score of baroque strings, woodwinds, and harpsichord playfully underscores it all, like a crazed dance growing more frantic with the Deuces’ growing ambitions. Each new subject is a progressively more complex life form than the last, and thus Greenaway sets in motion a formal evolution that we anxiously anticipate will end with the most biologically advanced animal of all.

Excellent form in the repetition of these time-lapse sequences, watching creatures decompose. Also, very confronting as they gradually become more advanced life forms.

In fact, there is very little at all separating these humans from the creatures they pick apart, but it is evident that the Deuces take great comfort in this, using their studies as a way they can understand themselves. It is with this in mind that Greenaway builds an artificially gorgeous world of colour and symmetry around his characters, where they live within perpendicular lines and patterns of duality like zoo animals in enclosures. It is worth drawing comparisons with Michael Powell, another British director who preceded Greenaway by roughly 40 years and who similarly innovated the use of colour in film to draw out the perverse fascinations of his characters, though Greenaway’s designs are a little more ostentatious with their confronting depictions of nudity and body horror.

This is one way to make a background character stand out – dousing them entirely in red costuming and set dressing.

The hospital is one such setting we return to frequently where Greenaway’s visions manifest on a grand scale, enveloping a one-legged Alba in a cavernous white room of clinical curtains and bare furniture, though breaking up the sterility with flower bouquets on a table directly in front of here. Often accompanying these florals are Oswald and Oliver, and even when she eventually moves back home into her spacious pink bedroom Greenaway continues to block them in similarly balanced compositions. Each time we return to this set it is always a little more symmetrical than the last, as these twins gradually merge their styles into one indistinguishable look and Alba eventually decides to have her remaining leg amputated.

The exact same blocking arrangement repeated all through the film – Alba centre frame, and the twins on either side, forming perfectly symmetrical compositions.

Greenaway possesses the sensibilities of both a painter and a scientist, and although this strange mix often creates a cold distance between him and his characters, its precision allows for an intensified focus on their disturbed psyches. It is especially mirrored in the expressionistic laboratory where pulsating pink and blue lights create off-beat visual rhythms with the flashing cameras, each one illuminating an exhibit of decomposing organisms. In one of the few tracking shots present in the film, Greenaway speeds his own camera down a row of these displays, overtaken by the same frenzied excitement as that of our mad scientists.

It can’t be captured in a single image, but the flashing strobe lights at different tempos and colours create a sense of organised chaos in the laboratory.

To them, it is the observation of life and death which gives it meaning, and it is through this reasoning that they try to ensure that they do not live or die in vain, turning one of their cameras on themselves. Greenaway is sure to emphasise a contrarian position here in an ironic twist of fate that sees their camera destroyed, maintaining that while the rules of nature remain unyielding, they serve no spiritual purpose other than the propulsion of its own existence. A creature put on display in a zoo or exhibition is a lonely thing indeed, but as we come to recognise in the final minutes of A Zed and Two Noughts, even lonelier is a creature with no spectators at all.

Greenaway has a painter’s eye, capturing perfectly staged tableaux with often absurd visual imagery and a good dose of nudity.

A Zed and Two Noughts is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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