A review requested by Mia S, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The second narrative feature directed by Peter Greenaway (and it would probably be okay to put "narrative feature" in scare quotes), A Zed & Two Noughts from 1985, is kind of fucking ludicrous, the monumentally ambitious overreach of a filmmaker combining the wide-ranging interests and enormous reference pool of a well-read middle-aged man with the gung-ho enthusiasm of a relative neophyte for whom the whole "art cinema" thing is a shiny new toy (Greenaway was 43 years old when the film came out, and he had been making experimental shorts and documentaries for 23 of those years). The director has in later days somewhat distanced himself from the finished film, acknowledging the gap between his intentions and his execution; there seems to be a general consensus among critics that this is a not-as-good early attempt at what the director would do much more successfully later on. I can't speak to that; I haven't seen remotely near enough Greenaway. There is an unmistakable brashness to it, for sure, one that feels untamed in ways that aren't always successful, with the caveat that "successful" is a loaded term in this case, very loaded indeed.

Anyway, it's kind of fucking ludicrous, this movie, but thankfully it makes it easy on us by clarifying very early what kind of ludicrousness we're in for. The zed and two noughts of the title stand for Zebra, Oswald, and Oliver. But they also spell out O-O-Z if you run them backwards like the film does near the end, and if you hold that up to a mirror and flip the Z around so it doesn't become a spiky S, like the film does at the same time, that spells Z-O-O, and a zoo is where the action takes place. The protagonists are a pair of biologists studying the animals at the zoo, brothers Oswald Deuce (Brian Deacon) and Oliver Deuce (Eric Deacon), one of whom is seen early on listlessly taking notes of how many times a tiger paces back and forth without eating the zebra head lying on the floor of its cage. We spend enough time watching this image that the tiger has been well burned into our brain, and then there's a cut to a street at night, and a car accident which is the precipitating event for the entire movie, but even so when the cut first happened, my attention was sucked right to the upper right corner, where an Esso billboard dominates the background, prominently featuring a mighty tiger. Perhaps other viewers would notice other things first, but I instantly found myself put on notice: apparently, A Zed & Two Noughts was going to be a movie in which things echoed with other things and the whole feature would require me to keep track of where those echoes occurred. I will not say that the tiger-to-tiger cut "trains" you how to watch A Zed & Two Noughts, which probably anyway can't be done properly without a notebook and pause button in hand, but it does give you an early indication of how much work it will be.

But it's also not that much work. Actually, the film is something of a big, over-the-top comedy, with a sense of humor probably best appreciated by misanthropic nihilists, but it's still hardly ever serious for even a few seconds on end. The wall-to-wall deadpan performances; the stiff, arch camera movements; the robotic obsessions that the main characters start to develop; the hilariously soothing and out-of-place presence of David Attenborough's frequent voice as the unseen narrator of unseen nature films, ironically commenting on the human action of the films in the best post-modern tradition; these things are all very funny, or at least they can be. If they're not, I can't even imagine what a nightmare A Zed & Two Noughts must be to suffer through. Heck, even the time-lapse shots of animals decomposing are kind of funny, thanks mostly to the whirling beehive energy of the music Michael Nyman has composed for the movie. Although I can imagine it being really a nightmare to suffer through if you don't end up on whatever warped wavelength the film very actively tries to put you on, where "rotting animal flesh" and "comic good times" don't seem automatically incompatible.

The film is all about decay, or rather, it is about the obsession with decay. The Deuce brothers lost their wives in that film-opening car accident; the car they were in hit a swan. This tragedy snaps the string connecting the Deuces to human emotion, and they fling themselves into the study of how living systems, once they are dead, form the fuel for other living systems. The very first dialogue in the movie, I believe, finds the brothers discussing how long it will take their wives' bodies - one of them hosting an also-dead human embryo - to decompose, and their primary activity for the remainder of film is to record that time-lapse imagery of dead flesh disintegrating, starting with an apple and progressing to ever-more-complex and large animals, hopefully to end with humans. Meanwhile the sole survivor of the accident, Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), ends up with a leg amputated, and this recommends her as another object of study for the brothers; they perhaps both fall in love with her, or maybe it's just that their three-way appreciation for the fragility and temporality of human flesh, in the wake of the accident, is so intense that it takes on erotic aspect.

The overall content of A Zed & Two Noughts is probably best described as what Peter Greenaway finds fascinating at any given moment, roughly shaped into something enough like a narrative that you have the ability to pretend you're watching an A to B to C story progression. Some of these fascinations include how evolution works, the paintings of Vermeer (whose use of color is obviously echoed in the images assembled by Greenaway and cinematographer Sacha Vierny - the first collaboration in a career-spanning relationship that ended only with Vierny's death. Seriously, I could scratch this whole review and start over again just talking about how they use color, or even just individual elements of color, and how Patricia Lim's costume designs feed into that), the arbitrary way that alphabet primers are assembled, and poetry.

Poetry, maybe, most of all. The matching tiger cut is where I started to notice that, too: A Zed & Two Noughts has the structure of a poem, one that overlaps the ends of lines with the start of subsequent lines, one that keeps pulling in the same imagery in different contexts (both visuals and phrases keep popping up at what seem to be irregular intervals throughout the film, and always carrying a different meaning). It has the rigid structure of highly regiment verse: the camera is always at strict 90° and 180° angles to the plane of action, and unless I missed something, when the camera moves (which is often), it only does so on a parallel line to the characters' own movement. It is as ruthlessly formal in its cinematography as I think it could possibly be, with the only violations of that form coming strictly within the frame: spaces that are messy in some way, and of course bodies that rot and fall apart. Given how eagerly the film chases symmetries - the pair of brothers with their pair of dead wives is the most obvious example - it's interesting and undoubtedly telling that one of the main characters is defined by, and obsessed with, her own asymmetry; Alba's missing leg causes her to violate the robotic precision of the world around her simply by existing in it. I think Greenaway loves her for that most of all. A Zed & Two Noughts is a film that is fascinated with living bodies just as much as dead ones, and perhaps for the same reasons: bodies in all states are unpredictable, imperfect, prone to doing things you don't mean for them to do, and this is clearly something the director finds exciting and worth pursuing (of course, unattractive naked bodies are a staple of Greenaway's cinema, something even a neophyte to his work like me knows). So we have a film in front of us doing two things: presenting a highly regimented cage of visual framing, of repeated and narrowing concepts, of clipped language, and of chilly mimicry of other art; and then embracing the sloppy disorder that cuts across that regimentation. I'm not absolutely sure what this is all meant to be doing, but I'm pretty sure that A Zed & Two Noughts is unfathomably generous as a result of all this; that's probably why it gets to be so damn funny, too, despite being about entirely awful things.

Lord knows it doesn't all come together in a satisfying way, which is probably no accident, for all that's a comfort while you're watching. The mountain of references and wordplay and visual repetition becomes overwhelming to the point that it could never all coalesce into something coherent. And shockingly, for something so heavy with self-conscious intellectual profundity, sometimes it's just too damn puerile and fond of dumb jokes, like the weird decision to name a character Venus de Milo. But I guess puerility is the point, too. Anyway, it's clearly a work that lacks discipline, and is perhaps paradoxically so non-stop demented that the shocking conceits growing boring after a while, but anything that keeps this many moving parts gliding along so fluidly for almost two full hours has all of my admiration, and the fact that I was laughing my ass off through a surprisingly large amount of the running time was merely a terrific bonus.