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Thanatos and Eros Sitting Around Talking

A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Dir: Peter Greenaway, Zeitgeist Films

In the evolution of great visual cinematic stylists, has any director been as anti-text as Peter Greenaway and still worked on the big screen?

Sex and death appear as painterly symbols in Peter Greenaway’s films; he studied as a muralist in England after leaving his native Wales in the ‘60s. His 1989 masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover married narrative/decorative use of color to a subversive revenge story in a cold dystopia (that just happens to look like ’80s England) where women wear great hats and everyone eats like pigs. That a tale culminating with a cuckolded husband dining upon the cock of his wife’s dead lover stands out as one of the director’s biggest successes should indicate that visual cinema is not, as Greenaway has suggested, dead or decrepit.

A Zed & Two Noughts, recently reissued, is Greenaway’s discourse on death and decay, replete with an introduction in which the director mentions his admiration for Darwin, a “very good storyteller.” Despite the multilayering of metaphors, though, the film’s story doesn’t really satisfy; it’s so dry it could have been delivered in a lecture hall. The recurrent time-lapse images of various fruits and zoo species decaying may make you feel like you are in a classroom.

The film is a narrative free-for-fall that starts with a car crash—a “swan crash”—that leaves one of the main characters, Albeta Bewick (pronounced like the car) sans one leg. When Andréa Ferréol, as Bewick, wakes up after her complete amputation, she’s more aggravated by the makeover done to her cascading red hair in which she’s been made to look like a Vermeer heroine. Is her anger a comment on the seemingly random ways in which evolution changes our outer shell? Moreover, why do brothers Oliver and Oswald Deuce both gravitate to the legless woman who drove the car in which their wives were killed instead of the sexy Venus de Milo (Frances Barber), a seamstress who uses her body as barter for the publication of her dirty animal stories? The clever Venus is a mere curiosity to the brothers; Bewick’s proximity to fertility and death carries the currency of mortality, which is the film’s obsession.

For those with only lukewarm fondness for Greenaway, Zed is not an easy film to watch. It doesn’t let you like it and it doesn’t want you to like it. The hint of a juicy subplot of a plastic surgeon named Van Meegeren, the nephew of the infamous Vermeer forger by the same name, goes nowhere, but it does provide more time-lapse, cooler quotes and more beautiful lighting. Lovely, yet nothing goes anywhere.

I kept thinking of Cronenberg’s Crash, which also begins with a car crash. Instead of looking at decay, though, Ballard’s book and the subsequent film took us into a world of the car crash as an erotic act. Even recovery, in Ballard’s words, uses an illicit currency in which each survivor’s mind is a cathouse.

Not so in Greenaway’s post-car crash world. We get legless women languorously attended by a team of pre-Raphaelite nurses in hospital rooms that look like O’Keefe paintings. Recovery of the body is swift, but the mind obsesses over the rotting of our corporeal beings. The notion of sexual pleasure, even of sexual perversity, à la Crash, would have been a welcome counterpoint. Even the surreptitious sex of Mirren and her lover—in The Cook, A Thief, His Wife and Her Lover—in a restaurant ladies’ room might have been better than Van Meegeren’s assistant’s abruptly slapping Oliver, then telling him he owes her £40.

By the time we see the brothers Deuce disrobing to share Bewick’s bed—and, later, expressing with the same repressed enthusiasm news of a joint fatherhood—we’ve already accepted Greenaway’s precept that nature is that to which we adapt. Still, should we not, as filmgoers, be startled or even vaguely turned on—by anything? Nothing in Zed comes close to the exquisitely underplayed moment in Crash as Holly Hunter’s hands move to Rosanne Arquette’s lap.


Melina Neet

Melina Neet wants to sleep until November 5.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

All Issues