A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

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My first Greenaway! It’s always jarring and a little intimidating when you first dip your toe into the pool of a filmmaker who is notoriously singular and provocative. It’s the moment when your idea of a filmmaker’s sensibility, in this case “Greenaway-esque”, is replaced and corrected by the real thing. Now you have a reference point. Sometimes it’s a lot to take in at once.

A Zed & Two Noughts has such a fierce vision and a complex concept that you run the risk of drowning in the deep end. It takes place in a ZOO (of the title) inhabited by humans. There is a pair of twin zoologists at the centre whose wives were killed in car accident involving a swan, there’s a woman with one leg and a prostitute who drifts between all of them. The twins become obsessed with decomposition and we see various things – from apples to animal corpses – slowly rot and decompose in visual intermissions. Snails crawl everywhere and we get a lot of David Attenborough narration. All of this is rendered in Greenaway’s tableux-like approach. Every shot looks like a painting, lit with style and fever but grounded in skin tones and the colours of the flesh. Michael Nyman’s terrific score swathes the entire thing in a regal bath. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on.

A lot of this film blurs together for me. It was quite the surreal experience, at once difficult and trying but also fascinating and beautiful. Greenaway’s outlook is so specific and accomplished – a true artist. It feels sexy and academic. There’s deep intelligence here but also mischief, like the lovehchild of Kubrick, Anger and Jodorowsky. It feels rich in the way dense novels do and will definitely require some thought and revisits down the line. I’m not sure if this was enough to make me a Greenaway fan flat-out, but I’m encouraged to keep going down this weird path. Next up: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

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