Outside the zoo, a car crash has occured when a pregnant swan smashed through the windscreen of a car being driven by Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferreol). The accident has killed the two passengers and caused Alba to lose her leg, something which deeply upsets twin scientists at the zoo, Oswald (Brian Deacon) and Oliver (Eric Deacon) Deuce, because the dead passengers were their wives. This sets them on a path to very strange behaviour as they throw themselves into a shared experiment on decaying dead animals, as if to cathartically rid themselves of their grief, not being able to contemplate their spouses' decomposition in their graves...
In 1985, writer and director Peter Greenaway was riding high both on critical acclaim and cinemagoers' respect, having impressed both with his arthouse hit The Draughtman's Contract, but as if he had thought, well, that was far too accessible, his next project after that was A Zed & Two Noughts, a rarefied exercise in gameplaying with his vast knowledge of the classics and his interest in the less salubrious side of human nature. Indeed, looking back on his career from this point it's hard to find any love in Greenaway's heart for the human race at all, and this standoffish chill informs the tone of a film that divided all those who had thought they were going to like this man's work.
As often with his productions, story took a back seat in favour of a selection of variations on themes such as the overwhelming influence of nature or the duality of twins, so while there was a progression of narrative events to some extent, here there were other things on the director's mind. More important were the images that his imagination could bring up in connection to his subject, so this was less about provoking an emotional reaction and more about prompting mass chin-stroking in the audience as they recognised how daring Greenaway was being. That's daring if you found the idea of, say, Alba disliking the lack of symmetry her body now has by insisting doctors amputate her other leg.
Or if that doesn't float you boat, how about frequently being interrupted in your appreciation of the exquisitely staged visuals by time lapse photography showing the results of those experiments by the Deuces, leaving you wondering how to take seeing a crocodile, a couple of fish, a dog, a zebra, and so on being broken down by decay and maggots, speeded up so that you don't have to wait around too long to see the results. You know that film of the decomposing bowl of fruit that was often shown on television to illustrate the effects of rot? Well, Greenaway certainly did, and took it to new extremes - the impression is that if he could have got away with showing a human corpse wasting away then he would have.
Along with that, one of the other obsessions in a film that is packed with them is the black and white concept, so the idea of an animal that is simultaneously black and white, like an angel fish or some zebras, especially captivates the brothers. To increase the straitjacket of structure on the proceedings, there will be mention of an animal alphabet, not unlike the one Ralph McTell presented on British children's television during the eighties, and it's nice to think that Greenaway was influenced by that even if he wasn't, as according to him there was no such animal beginning with the letter X, whereas according to Ralph you could get X-ray fish, and I know who I prefer to believe. As with a number of films that lean on the experimental side, A Zed & Two Noughts is in danger of getting simply silly - Jim Davidson is in it, for a start - and more likely to leave most viewers cold. But if you want to be tied in intellectual knots by Mr G., dive in: the rest of us might recognise his methods as all too close to the inquiring mind of little boys pulling the wings off flies. Music by Michael Nyman.
[This film never looked better as it does on the BFI Blu-ray, which includes as special features a short film by Greenaway, an introduction to the film by the director, and an audio commentary.]