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Zed and Two Noughts, A (1985)


Main image of Zed and Two Noughts, A (1985)
DirectorPeter Greenaway
Production CompanyBFI Production Board
 Artificial Eye
 Film Four
ProducersPeter Sainsbury
 Kees Kasander
ScriptPeter Greenaway
PhotographySacha Vierny
MusicMichael Nyman

Cast: Andréa Ferréol (Alba Bewick), Brian Deacon (Oswald Deuce), Eric Deacon (Oliver Deuce), Frances Barber (Venus De Milo), Joss Ackland (Van Hoyten), Jim Davidson (Joshua Plate)

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A woman loses a leg in a car crash caused by a low-flying swan and becomes an obsession both for her surgeon and for a number of employees at a local zoo. Meanwhile, the twins whose wives died in the crash embark on experiments concerning the origins of life.

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Following the positive reception for The Draughtsman's Contract (1981), Peter Greenaway felt a pressure to deliver an equally successful second feature. Countering this feeling, he loaded A Zed & Two Noughts with a plethora of themes and ideas.

After the notable lack of dialogue during the first five minutes, the story unfolds in a way that plays with the passing of time in a critical and conceptual manner. The film is, in some senses, anti-narrative, and mirrors its concern with life and evolution in its form (Charles Darwin is a hero of Greenaway's, although Zed still references the creationist story of Eden). It begins with the death of the zoologists' wives and, although this event becomes a cause to react against and ultimately brings life, the film goes full circle to end with the death of the twins themselves, prompting the question, 'what happens next?' The time between the two moments of death, with the creation, gestation and birth of twin sons, appears to be a year. This neatly allies with the suggestion that if the world were one year old then man would have been born on December 31st - in effect, where the film ends.

The passage of this year is partially traversed or speeded-up with the twin's time-lapse films of decomposing animals - films not so far removed, in their technique, from the stop-motion animation films made by the Brothers Quay. The Quays, also identical twins, featured previously in Greenaway's The Falls (1980), and were an important initial inspiration for A Zed & Two Noughts.

The film began Greenaway's ongoing collaboration with the cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who had worked previously with Alain Resnais. Vierny tried to light every scene a different way - by candlelight, sunlight, even by the light of a rainbow - noting light's vital relationship to life. The importance of light in the film is also stressed in the many references to the painter Vermeer, another keen observer of light.

The title alludes in part to the two twins, Oswald and Oliver and to the sense of deconstruction in the film (note the consistent suggestions of containment through framing - like a zoo cage), but also, despite being shot in Amsterdam, to a particular Englishness or Britishness. The British, of course, have zeds, while Americans have zees.

William Fowler

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. The land of the legless (1:39)
2. Decaying prawns (1:52)
3. Zebras and mermaids (4:21)
4. Symmetry is all (4:04)
Original trailer (2:49)
Production stills
Davidson, Jim (1953-)
Greenaway, Peter (1942-)
Nyman, Michael (1944-)
Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)
Vierny, Sacha (1919-2001)
Channel 4 and Film
They Started Here