"Do you think a zebra is a white animal with black stripes, or a black animal with white stripes?"
The film begins with the sound of a car crash. The next frame unfolds to show us a white car with a swan embedded in its windscreen, and a woman shouting out in agony. We can also see two women in the back of the car, motionless - who are then imposed on to a newspaper headline - SWAN CRASH TWO DIE, it says. The deceased women were married to twin brothers, zoologists Oliver and Oswald Deuce. After the accident they grieve at the bedside of the stricken survivor of the crash, a lady named Alba Bewick, who has had her leg amputated. At first they blame her for the accident, then later start to both sleep with her.
Most of their time is spent photographing dead animals. Some of these are shown decaying quickly, accompanied by good music from Michael Nyman. Also around the zoo is a prostitute named Venus de Milo (Frances Barber is sexually appealing) who the brothers both use. There's a strange figure named Van Hoyten, played by Joss Ackland (It Couldn't Happen Here), and also the film includes the only feature-film appearance of the English comedian, Jim Davidson, who will be familiar to viewers in England. He plays Joshua Plate, an assistant at the zoo.
Eventually Alba has her other leg amputated, and also has twin babies by the Deuce brothers. Yes, she claims they are by both of them. It then leads to a tragic conclusion. The music by Michael Nyman is wonderful, and is my personal favourite soundtrack of his. It is a fascinating film to watch. Beautiful to look at, as always with Greenaway's films. It offers the viewer many intriguing layers and textures to explore. Each scene is delicately structured. Something different. Another Peter Greenaway master class.
"The boldest and arguably the best of Peter Greenaway's fiction features, this extremely odd and perverse conceptual piece certainly isn't for every taste, although Sacha Vierny's cinematography makes it so luscious that you may find yourself mesmerized in spite of yourself. Only partially a narrative film, this elegant puzzle also involves amputees, painting, a menage a trois, and decomposing animals - along with many other things - which are intricately interrelated thanks to Greenaway's icy brilliance. Definitely a one-of-a-kind movie." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
"As usual with Greenaway, the ideas are large, endless and perverse; and they are teased out with the exquisite formal perfection of a court minuet. Moreover he frames, colours and shoots with a top dollar precision. A film with all the cool, intellectual thrill of the Kasparov-Karpov game." - Chris Peachment, Time Out
"The mixture of blackest farce and artistic erudition would be ridiculous in anything but the most assured hands, and Greenaway once again proves his mastery of the medium. Intellectually vigorous and artfully persuasive." - The Face
"Not so much a film as a visual essay, exquisitely directed and photographed (by Sacha Vierny)... Difficult to watch but well worthwhile for those willing to be challenged." - Leonard Maltin, Cinemania
"Immensely entertaining... wickedly funny... How could you fail to love a film that features a prostitute who tells erotic stories about frogs?" - NME
"It is gloriously unpredictable, fascinatingly idiosyncratic, at times perversely impenetrable." - Alexander Walker, Evening Standard
"The energy is immense, the appearance
of the film consistently sleek and visually exciting." - Philip French, The
"Like nothing you've ever seen before." - James Verniere, Boston Herald
Greenaway on the concept of A Zed & Two Noughts:
"Although there are many visual sources for the origin of A Zed & Two Noughts, the three most conveniently recognizable ones can be accredited to a tape, an ape and a borrowed photograph.
The tape was a three-minute time-lapse film of the decay of a common mouse first shown on a BBC Horizon programme in 1981. Thanks to the speeding up of the time-lapse material, it was seen that maggots acted in unison on a corpse, devouring it systematically in a pack. It was the camera-operator's ambitious hope one day to film the decay of an elephant.
The ape lived in Rotterdam Zoo and had only one leg. The animal had been chained in a backyard. The chain had bitten into the leg and the spread of infection was only to be prevented by amputation. When the animal climbed and swung about in its cage there were times when it seemed that the missing leg was no impediment at all. Its incapacity had, it seemed, been victoriously overcome.
The photograph had been a generous loan to me in 1978 for an encyclopaedic film called The Falls. It showed a confidently smiling woman standing between the elegant, enigmatic, identically-twinned Quay Brothers, puppeteers and filmmakers whose methods of film-animation were not so very different from the concepts of squeezing time that had made it possible to see how the maggots had devoured the mouse carcase.
With various degrees of conscious and subconscious manipulation, these three primary visual sources were welded into a script that, since all the best things come in threes, permitted a close view of the trauma of loss and the fascination of decay; it offered a platform for consideration, without judgement, of man's persistently dubious relationship with animals and provided another opportunity to play with taxonomies - used, no longer used, wholly invented, unlikely, irrelevant or impossible - Darwin's Eight Evolutionary Stages of Natural Selection, the seven days of Genesis, the Greek Pantheon, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, the diminishing number of authenticated Vermeer paintings... and so on.
The overall visual master-of-ceremonies of the film was to be Vermeer - adroit and prophetic manipulator of the two essentials of cinema - the split-second of action, and drama revealed by light. It cannot be proved that Vermeer's 'Milkmaid' is a painting representing one twenty-fourth of a second of seventeenth-century time, exposed at f8, but the direction of the light is certain: always from the left of frame, coming from a source four and a half feet off the ground. The intention to preserve this discipline rigorously in A Zed & Two Noughts was, as often not, eroded by the vagaries of the locations and the free range habits of animals, but the spirit was preserved.
Homage to Vermeer in composition, gestures and picture detail is frequent and unabashed. Vermeer's wife, Caterina Bolnes, is there, manifest as 'The Lady in the Red Hat', as is Vermeer's prime faker, Van Meegeren, the man who successfully convinced Europe (and Goebbels) that there were certainly more than twenty-six authenticated Vermeers in existence.
To match the content, the major compositional device is twin ship and symmetry. The facts, fiction, mythology and apocrypha on twins is limitlessly rich - two of everything, the search for your other half, mistaken identities, mirror-imaging, substitution, the doppelgänger, the lateral line and cloning. Plots, plays, scripts and libretti are certainly not infrequent on the subject. The archetypal pair of twins, Castor and Pollux, the astrological Gemini, born out of an egg from the union of a swan and a god provide A Zed & Two Noughts with its central pivot, the brothers Oliver and Oswald Deuce, the two letter Os, the two noughts, the two zeros of the film's title - put together to make a spectacle of themselves.
And the brothers work in a zoo. It could be said now that all animals live in zoos, whether it is a zoo in Regent's Park, London or a Nigerian Game Reserve. Perhaps what's left to argue is only the zoo's quality. Thanks to the Voyage of the Beagle, the demise of the work-horse, the plans now being made to leave Earth and our present dubious passion with ecology, our relationship with animals has changed dramatically in the last hundred years; but has our sense of responsibility improved? And have we acknowledged another responsibility? What about mermaids, centaurs, the Sphinx, the Minotaur, werewolves, vampires, and that proliferating zoo of contemporary hybrids. If one parent was an animal now familiar behind bars in the zoo, who was the other?
Are animals like car-crashes - Acts of God or mere accidents - bizarre, tragic, farcical, plotted nowadays into a scenario by an ingenious storyteller, Mr C. Darwin? Is classical Venus the biblical Eve? If the evolutionary span of life on Earth is represented by a year of 365 days, and man made his appearance at eight o'clock on 31 December, did woman arrive just after eight? Was Adam a twin, and if so, what happened to his brother? Is a zebra a white horse with black stripes, or a black horse with white stripes?
Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be merely left to the storytellers." - Peter Greenaway, introduction to the A Zed & Two Noughts book
Greenaway on the themes and strengths of A Zed & Two Noughts
Click on image to see complete size
More images from the film
A Zed & Two Noughts DVD
A Zed & Two Noughts DVD 2
H is for House
Vertical Features Remake
A Walk Through H
Act of God
The Draughtsman's Contract
The Sea in their Blood
Making a Splash
The Belly of an Architect
Drowning by Numbers
Fear of Drowning
Death in the Seine
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
A TV Dante: The Inferno Cantos I-VIII
M is for Man, Music and Mozart
The Baby of Mācon
Lumiere & Company
The Pillow Book
8 1/2 Women
The Death of a Composer
The Tulse Luper Suitcases
The European Showerbath