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Case Number 12974

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A Zed And Two Noughts

Zeitgeist Films // 1985 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 12th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis isn't a scientist, but he thinks that a zebra is just a normal horse painted to look like a referee.

The Charge

Is leglessness a form of contraception?

Opening Statement

Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers) is one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 25 years. His work is unflinchingly dense and "arty," but his bizarre subject matter and lurid content are always attractive to viewers. I first watched The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover for no better reason than I knew it featured cannibalism, a subject of long-time morbid interest for me. While I got what I had sought, it turned out to be one of the most cinematically rewarding experiences of my life, and I've been a fan ever since. All the meticulous detail and symbolism in his films is accented by beautiful music, stunning cinematography, and a dark sense of humor. Few directors cling so firmly to the notion of "film as art," and his uncompromised vision puts him in a class by himself.

A Zed and Two Noughts, his second feature, contains elements that he has continued to explore throughout his career. This is by far his most ambitious film, though with three wholly individual stories jockeying for position in these two hours, he may go a little too far with this ambition.

Facts of the Case

Oliver and Oswald Deuce (Eric and Brian Deacon), twin zoologists, lose their wives when a swan collides with their car. The driver of the vehicle and only survivor of the crash, Alba Bedwich (Andréa Ferréol, La Grande Bouffe) lost her leg in the tragedy and is the only connection the brothers have to the deceased. They obsess over her and her story but, when she can't give a reason for the women's deaths, they turn to science for answers. They hole themselves up in the zoo to research the origins of life and its decay after death, hoping to find a clue to the human condition. They study the origins of life passively, by watching documentaries (narrated by David Attenborough) on evolution. More active in their study of decay, they acquire dead animals from the zoo to film their natural decomposition processes with time-lapse photography. As the animals get more complex, from fish to reptiles to birds to mammals, the method of acquisition becomes increasingly more difficult and more criminal. By using this research to cope with their grief, the twins become closer than they've ever been. They don't even know how close until Alba reveals that she's pregnant with her own set of twins and each of them is the father.

The Evidence

A Zed and Two Noughts is a beautifully flawed film. A whirlwind of detailed images, it never stays on one topic for too long, and the sheer amount of information thrown around keeps the film from ever completely focusing, but it is a mind-blowing experience nonetheless. The three subjects of the story—a study of twinship, an environmental essay, and a celebration of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer—are what make this film unique but, at the same time, show that Greenaway somewhat overreaches in his sophomore feature.

The Twins
The relationship between Oliver and Oswald, based on the same original case as David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, forms the bulk the storyline. They're twins, but at first they are very different people. While the deaths of their wives and the presence of Alba help to close the gaps between them, it is their research into the origins of life that makes them realize their true connection. I'll give away no spoilers, but the finish to their research is the ultimate expression of this bond. The actors, Eric and Brian Deacon are brothers but not twins. As they get closer, though, the makeup department does a remarkable job of making them look progressively more alike until the end, where they are almost indistinguishable. The performances share this as their personalities meld together slowly until, finally, they nearly think the other's thoughts. Greenaway does an excellent job exploring the psychological and emotional issues surrounding twins, but doesn't ever come to any strong conclusions on the subject.

The Decay
References to evolution and natural history are everywhere in the film, and the question of our role in the environment dominates the symbolism. While seldom addressed in the dialogue, the setting of the zoo and science as the basic coping mechanism for the brothers helps to give these symbols weight. In the evolution documentaries, the twins see the reasons why certain species are selected for evolution and why some fall by the wayside. By extension, they hope to find a reason why their wives were selected out. Concurrently, in their experiments, they watch the regression of life back to its origins: the primordial ooze. By objectifying the decomposition process, they can imagine their wives and themselves, by extension, as part of this eternal process. The time-lapse footage that they shoot of the decaying animals makes for an amazing, but surreally harrowing, experience. As the animal becomes more complex, so does the decay. We watch as the swan's feathers ruffle from the maggots and the crocodile appears to breathe as the converted gasses escape the body. Truly amazing footage, it is gruesome however, as the maggots and slime are shown in full view. All but one subplot deals with aspects of this idea. Stories about a zoo manager's prejudice against black and white animals and sexual attraction toward the animals, specifically zebras, fill the bulk of the main plot's down time.

The other subplot involves Alba and a doctor named Van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen). The character name comes from a noted faker of Vermeers, and here he creates pastiches of Johannes Vermeer paintings at his hospital. He amputated Alba's first leg for health but he now uses her as the female subject of his "Vermeers." Her one leg defies symmetry, though, so he wants to amputate her other one so she fits in the frame better. This is only the first of many references to the Dutch master, who has sometimes been called the world's first cinematographer for his use of natural and artificial lighting in his work. Greenaway, an avid fan of the artist (he also co-wrote and directed an opera called "Writing to Vermeer" by Louis Andriessen), had originally trained in painting and brought a lot of those principles with him in his move to film. As a result, the scenes are very deliberately composed with vanishing points, symmetry, and parallel lines to direct the eyes to certain places; each shot looks like a painting unto itself. While looking at Vermeer's painting, Greenaway and legendary cinematographer Sacha Vierny (Belle de jour) made a list of possible sources for lighting a scene. They came up with 26 in total and implemented them, for better or for worse, into different places in the film. They shoot in traditional cinema lighting and natural light, but go beyond with scenes lit by heat lamps, moonlight, and oddly, a rainbow. All of this is done to recreate the mood and tone of Vermeer's paintings, and while they may reach mixed results with each experiment, it is a magical display of visual style and skill.

Zeitgeist's release of A Zed and Two Noughts is a welcome replacement for the original Fox Lorber disc, which had a badly washed out print and a bare bones presentation. While the transfer isn't perfect, it has been cleaned up significantly. Because the styles of lighting constantly change and a lot of stock footage gets used for the natural history films, the color levels and contrasts vary scene to scene. At its best, the image looks spectacular and worthy of all the detail placed in the image. Occasional grain in some scenes is distracting, but never too bad. The sound is unspectacular. The dialog and Michael Nyman's amazing score are both completely clear, and there is no real hiss, but it is a no-frills audio presentation. The extras, though, make this release. Greenaway's commentary on the film is one of the best I've heard. There are no pauses in the conversation, and while he gives a few anecdotes from the film, he mostly uses the scenes at hand as a jumping off point on his philosophies. Also, for those morbid viewers who didn't get enough decay, more gore from each of these scenes is available in the extras. The footage is amazing but still quite gruesome.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Greenaway, in that fabulous commentary, says that if he could remake one of his films, he would redo A Zed and Two Noughts. He additionally writes in an essay with the liner notes, "A parent often reserves his greatest affection for the most troubled and troubling offspring." For all the beauty and intelligence in the film, it is just too ambitious to maintain consistency. The three stories constantly fight for position and there's not enough time to flesh out any of them completely. Each could be its own film, and while Greenaway takes us on a heady ride, he would go on to explain himself more coherently in later films.

Closing Statement

Flawed as it is, the sheer beauty and substance makes A Zed and Two Noughts a must-watch film. Gorgeously shot and structured with an extremely dark sense of humor, it lays the groundwork for much of what Peter Greenaway would do in later films.

The Verdict

Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman, and Sacha Vierny are exemplary members of the film world. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 80
Extras: 90
Acting: 90
Story: 95
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio commentary with Peter Greenaway
• Behind-the-scenes footage from ?O, Zoo!, a documentary by Phillip Hoffman
• Six "Decay" sequences
• Snail Sketches
• Theatrical Trailer
• Essays by Greenaway and film critic Jonathan Marlow


• IMDb

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