A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)


(director/writer: Peter Greenaway; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editor: John Wilson; music: Michael Nyman; cast: Andréa Ferréol (Alba Bewick), Brian Deacon (Oswald Deuce), Eric Deacon (Oliver Deuce), Frances Barber (Venus de Milo), Joss Ackland (Van Hoyten), Jim Davidson (Joshua Plate), Agnès Brulet (Beta Bewick); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Peter Sainsbury/Kees Kasander; Zeitgeist Films; 1985-UK)

“Enjoyable as a work of perversion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title is derived as a slick way for a hipster to spell zoo (it was filmed in and around the Rotterdam Zoo). Eccentric indie filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”/”Drowning by Numbers”/ “Prospero’s Books”) second arthouse feature after his critically acclaimed big box-office hit debut of The Draughtsman’s Contract is a far less fulfilling black comedy but nevertheless still enjoyable as a work of perversion that is mildly sprinkled with teasing intellectual flavorings. The visuals by Sacha Vierny are stunning as is the musical score by Michael Nyman. What’s underwhelming is Greenaway’s limited screenplay, the stilted dialogue when there’s no philosophizing afoot and the slight story. What’s compelling is the overall zany effect due largely to the endless inane chatter about such diverse topics as evolution, Vermeer, man’s relationship with animals, loss, organic decay and science’s answers to the life and death process. A prostitute called Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) is asked, perhaps, the film’s pivotal question, which sounds like a Zen koan: ”Is a zebra a black horse with white stripes, or a white horse with black stripes?” A good response would probably follow along those Zen lines and that might be the best way to get into this obscure film, that is not for all tastes and most likely plays its freaky tune only to Greenaway aficionados.

The wives of identical twin zoologists, Oscar Deuce (Eric Deacon) and Oswald Deuce (Brian Deacon), are killed when a car driven by Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferreol) near the zoo is attacked by a white swan (think Leda and the Swan), as it crashes into the windshield of her white Mercury. Alba, covered in white feathers, survives with one leg, but following treatment her bizarre Vermeer obsessed doctor, Van Meegaran (Gerard Thoolen), who is attracted to her, also removes the other leg “because it was dangerous for the spine.” In the meantime, Alba has been having an affair with both Deuce brothers and has become pregnant and not sure who is the father; she gives birth, naturally, to twins.

Greenaway mentions that his screenplay was derived from three major ”visual sources”- a video tape of a mouse being eaten by maggots, a photograph of a one-legged ape in the Rotterdam zoo and a photograph of a woman standing between identical male twins and ”smiling confidently.” What the film is really about is open to speculation, but its open-ended non-traditional narrative was not a deterrent for me to find it clever and intriguing in spots. That it could have been better executed, goes without saying, as it veers from being pretentiously annoying to being visually mesmerizing. A ‘do over’ might eliminate some of its messy problems and elevate this film to a higher level of consciousness.