Thursday, September 26, 2013

FI: A Zed & Two Noughts

A Zed & Two Noughts
UK/Netherlands, 1985
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway

A Zed & Two Noughts seems to distill of all of British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's filmic obsessions into a single work. It is filled with painterly, rigorously-composed, masterfully-lit images by the great cinematographer Sacha Vierny. It deals with the world of fine art, particularly the Dutch masters (here represented by Vermeer and his copycat forger van Meegeren). It has a strange, earthy obsession with biology, death, and decay. There are grotesque scenes played either straight or for a laugh, and frank depictions of nudity and sexuality with a psychosexual bent. The relentless minimalist music of Michael Nyman provides a forward-driving momentum. All of these things make the film of a piece with Greenaway's overarching artistic vision. None of them, however, makes the film make sense or come together in a particularly meaningful way.

Brothers Oswald and Oliver Deuce (real-life brothers Brian and Eric Deacon) are zoologists studying animal behavior. Their wives are killed in a freak car vs. swan accident, and the two slowly become obsessed with Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), the car's ersatz driver, who survives but has a leg amputated by her Vermeer-obsessed surgeon van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen). At the same time, the brothers become similarly obsessed with life and death, which leads them to mainline David Attenborough documentaries and set up time-lapse cameras to record the decomposition of various zoo animals. Also in the mix is Venus de Milo (Frances Barber)—a woman who appears to live in or around the zoo and who sells sex and dirty animal stories to get by—and her involvement in the lives of the zoo's animals and employees like the Deuce brothers and an administrator called Van Hoyten (Joss Ackland).

The film moves from scene to scene with a dreamy logic that somehow fuses images and plot, but not in a readily digestible way. It is a joy to look at; nearly every frame looks like a painting, with a lighting scheme and set design not often seen in feature films, and all aspects of the mise-en-scène contribute to this effect. Even the disgusting time-lapse sequences of rotting fruit and animals, set to Nyman's frenetic score, are somehow made beautiful. I just wish the plot and characters had more to recommend them. The fine art framing forces the on-screen action to be filmed at a slight remove, and most of the acting seems intentionally stiff and rigid. These things combine to drain the film's emotions and distance us from its arch characters. Whenever I see a new Greenaway film, I wind up wanting to see all of them, and this is no exception. But A Zed & Two Noughts's icy rigidity comes close to changing this. The film's technical bravura carries it through, but only just; imagine where we'd be if that bravura it had been wed to even a slightly more engrossing narrative.

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