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‘A Zed and Two Noughts’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 27, 1988

At the beginning of Peter Greenaway's 1985 film "A Zed and Two Noughts," the wives of identical twin zoologists, Oscar (Eric Deacon) and Oswald (Brian Deacon), are killed when a car driven by a woman named Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferreol) is attacked by a swan.

Alba, who loses her leg in the accident, is wearing white feathers at the time, the Ford Mercury she was driving is white and so is the swan. The accident occurs on Swan's Way.

As the Richard Dreyfuss character said in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "This means something."

"A Zed and Two Noughts," filmed in and around the Rotterdam Zoo (the title is a playful spelling of "zoo"), is a drolly perverse art comedy so densely packed with literary and art historical puns and in-jokes that, watching it, the mind nearly boggles. In this case, though, the boggling isn't terribly pleasurable or illuminating.

Still, the director does strike out in an original direction; there are things here that you've never seen onscreen before. As a result of their wives' deaths, the twins become obsessed with death and decay. Oswald wants to know exactly how long it takes for a corpse to rot, where the rotting starts, and just how it looks. And so, beginning with an apple and progressing to crocodiles and zebras and finally (though not successfully) to humans, he begins making time-lapse movies of decomposing objects -- movies we are given more than a glimpse of.

The movie isn't really about death or decay, at least not in the sense that it explores the meaning of these matters as ideas. Greenaway, who was born in England and trained as a painter, is more interested in laying out the film's visual strategy and its elaborate system of signs and allusions than he is constructing a narrative. In place of a story are scenes that elucidate the film's themes of twinning and symmetry, evolution, the relationship between man and the natural world.

Much of the movie is designed to shock, but its shocks are labored and don't carry the charge Greenaway seems to think they will. The twins are both seduced by Alba, who for symmetry's sake has her other leg removed (and eventually bears twin offspring). And when Alba changes her name to Leda the density of the punning comes dangerously close to ridiculous.

As an esthetic exercise, an intellectual puzzle game, "A Zed and Two Noughts" is glibly clever and intermittently funny, and it holds our interest for a time because we're curious to see where the writer-director is going. But after a while the cleverness becomes wearing. And though visually the movie is inventive, with its sharp, synthetic colors and meticulously balanced compositions (it was shot by Sacha Vierny), Greenaway's deliberately abstruse style, and his assumption that we're as charmed by his smarty-pants display as he is, is smug and off-putting.

Also on the program is a short film titled "Street of Crocodiles" by the British animators the Brothers Quay, who Greenaway says were models for the twins here. But though the pairing is natural, it's unfortunate, at least as far as Greenaway is concerned. Inexplicably powerful, "Street of Crocodiles," which runs only 20 minutes but pulls us inside a mysterious universe of haunting, dreamlike images, is a little miracle. Next to it, "A Zed and Two Noughts" looks like nothing more than a Rubik's Cube for tony intellectuals.

"A Zed and Two Noughts" contains nudity, mutilation and extremely suggestive adult situations.

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