If you’re one of Peter Greenaway’s loyal fans, you know what you’re getting – and in my opinion he doesn’t get much better than with A Zed & Two Noughts. If you’re not au fait with the maverick, art-orientated auteur, then this isn’t a bad starting point. ZOO is by no means straightforward but, to the open-minded, it’s relatively accessible, comprehensible, and thoroughly involving.
A Zed & Two Noughts (the title hints at the extensive symbolism within) is a masterfully crafted tale of people desperately searching for patterns which make sense of life and death. The film finds beauty and meaning in the scientific and artistic rationalisations that the characters build up around themselves, and in the violent, random events that bring them down again. Oswald and Oliver Deuce (two O’s) play brothers whose wives are both killed when a swan falls from the sky and causes a car accident. One brother seeks answers in the laws of evolution; the other obsesses over the decomposition of dead bodies, filming the rotting carcasses of increasingly large animals – the sped-up videos that are shown back to us are morbidly mesmerising, as troops of maggots parade around the disintegrating corpses in unison. Meanwhile, the driver from the fatal crash has one leg amputated and is keen to have the other removed for the sake of symmetry (itself a theme reflected in Greenaway’s impeccably framed shots). She is being encouraged to do so by the shady figure of surgeon and Vermeer-forger Van Meegeren: Vermeer, we’re told, never painted legs (‘Our heroine never had any legs,’ explains Greenaway in the notes, ‘because they were amputated to make her better fit the film-frame.’)
All of this is set against the background of a corrupt and dwindling zoo populated by amputee chimps, power-crazed management and Jim Davidson (playing a vile and dim-witted security guard). The themes and ideas are expertly handled; as is revealed in Greenaway’s enlightening commentary, he was just as engrossed in the film’s eclectic subject matter as his compelling characters. In collaboration with legendary cinematographer Sacha Vierny, Greenaway sought to utilise 26 different types of light source, from moonlight to cathode tube to rainbow, and – in homage to Vermeer – the light almost always comes from the left, half-a-metre above the ground. Regardless of the actual technique, ZOO is visually sumptuous, packed with beauty, ugliness, meaning and, frequently, humour. Greenaway’s arch dialogue and high-art toilet humour are not for everyone, but his vision of Englishness is accurate and unique. At every turn, the story becomes more outrageous, implausible and convincing, and exploring Greenaway’s unique way of looking at our stupid, brilliant human world.
In addition to the film and Greenaway’s commentary there is an informative introduction filmed by the director, some disappointingly sparse footage extracted from Philip Hoffman’s making-of documentary (copyright issues, perhaps?), original trailers and a handful of playful hidden features.