Throughout the 1980’s British director Peter Greenaway caught the eye of arthouse cinema audiences with a slew of visually stunning films, beginning with the elaborate period piece, The Daughtsman’s Contract in 1982, and ending the decade with the controversial The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
Fascinated by video and new technology, his output in the 1990s became more and more ambitious, some of which – like The Baby of Macon – divided even his most loyal fans. Today, Greenaway concentrates on creating large-scale video art installations, but his 1980’s canon are true modern classics – and the stand-out for me is 1985’s A Zed & Two Noughts.
A dazzling fusion of the surreal, operatic camp, art theory and natural history documentary with high-end production design, A Zed & Two Noughts is a symphony of decay set to celluloid.
The story is like a modern Grimm fairytale: Obsessed with the deaths of their wives following a car crash, twin zoologists Oswald and Oliver form a sexual connection with car crash survivor and amputee, Alba (who seeks their help to escape her doctor who is obsessed with recreating in life the works of the Dutch artist Vermeer).
Fascinated by the origins of life (David Attenborough’s landmark TV series features throughout) and the process of decay, one twin films dead animals from the zoo while the other drowns himself in pleasures of the flesh. After Alba gives birth to their twin sons, the brothers unite in their grief (symmetry is all) and decide to take their own lives.
The striking visuals, greatly inspired by Johannes Vermeer (a Greenaway obsession), are bold and darkly beautiful thanks to Greenaway’s favourite cinematographer, Sacha Vierny (who also worked with Alain Resnais and Luis Bunuel); while Michael Nyman‘s unforgettable, minimalist score brings all the elements together, making this a delicious cinematic feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. The long tracking shot through the zoo’s light-houses remains my all-time favourite scene of any film, ever.
Released by the BFI in a new high definition transfer on Blu-ray, it includes a full feature commentary with the director, and a host of inspiring special features – the highlight being Greenaway’s 1983 short, The Sea in Their Blood, a statistic-fuelled pre-Coast documentary about Britain’s relationship with the seaside, featuring a score by Michael Nyman.