I once made the mistake of asking a filmmaker friend of mine (whose opinion I greatly respect) what he thought of Peter Greenaway and was rewarded with a terse outburst suggesting that Greenaway’s films would have probably been hits with the guards at Auschwitz. I dropped the subject quickly. Greenaway’s films are simply not for everyone. Very often they’re not for me. Some—The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Belly of an Architect (1987)—simply bore me. At least one—The Baby of Macon (1997)—repels me. Indeed, only two of his films completely work for me: Prospero’s Books (1991) and this film. A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) was only brought to the U.S. in 1990 after the surprise popularity of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). In many ways, this very unusual movie—about identical (originally conjoined) twins (Brian and Eric Deacon) who become obsessed with the study of decaying matter after their wives are killed in a car wreck—is no different from the bulk of Greenaway’s work. It’s cold—almost clinical—and there’s a decided streak of cruelty about it that’s hard to shake. There’s no warmth here—only a carefully distanced, dispassionate observation of various kinds of obsession and perverse human behavior, shot through with blackest black comedy. As much as it’s like other Greenaway films, there’s nothing quite like it in his (or anyone else’s) filmography.
The narrative—such as it is—merely follows the twins’ descent into their obsession and their peculiar relationships with those in their sphere, most notably their incestuous ménage à trois relationship with the woman (Andrea Ferreol) who was driving the car in which their wives were killed. There’s also a grimly promiscuous woman (Frances Barber) with a desire to be trampled by the zebras in the zoo where most of the action takes place. And then there’s a sadistic zoo official (Joss Ackland) and a corrupt surgeon (Gerard Thoolen) with a Vermeer fixation and a penchant for probably unnecessary amputations. At the end of it all, it’s finally an exercise in futility.
Technically, the film is a marvel, and it boasts a terrific musical score by Michael Nyman. It may offend many viewers—not in the least because it’s like the ultimate car crash on film. You want to look away, but it’s so perversely fascinating that you can’t bring yourself to. That is both its brilliance and the reason it should be approached with caution.