After a prolific run throughout the 1980s and ’90s, egghead filmmaker Peter Greenaway seems to have shifted gears and began creating multimedia installations, DVD-ROMs, websites, and art books. On the surface, that might seem the more appropriate medium for a movie career that is more connected to the tradition of Flemish painting, with flat, painterly frames usually with an object set right in the middle and lavish attention devoted to cascading light and vibrant color schemes. His editing technique, especially in his early films, juxtaposed visual puns against one another, encouraging the characters (and viewers with a taste for this kind of intellectual gamesmanship) to do some comprehensive list-making and categorization of Greenaway’s pet obsessions: art, sex, and decay.
That said, Greenaway’s cinema is not exclusively meant for cultural aesthetes and humorless snobs. His movies, in fact, are often funnier than those of Woody Allen, with his befuddled, hyper-intellectualizing characters diving joyfully into the lowbrow, venal, and scatological comedy of lust and pain. Or maybe it’s just that Greenaway’s utter contempt for mere mortals is so huge that it becomes a jokey larger-than-life laundry list of all that is sordid in mankind. For example, in A Zed & Two Noughts, Greenaway’s second feature, a whore gleefully tells bedside stories about sex with frogs, and when an accident victim loses her leg, her sinister physician encourages her to chop off the other because it seems so lonely. Yet the unrepentant, frequently hysterical pitch-black humor of Zed & Two Noughts never achieves the tragic resonance of his later work.
The key difference is that film’s heroes, the twins Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon), remain detached recorders and observers of death and decay. They keep it at arm’s length, refusing to connect with it emotionally. After their wives both die in a head-on car accident near a zoo, with a white swan standing right outside (which is the “zed and two noughts” word play of the title), the twins start carefully observing the rotting carcasses of zoo animals. While the frequent cutaways to decomposing alligators and zebras make for undeniably fascinating graphic images, it also brings up memories of biology class more than the pain of loss.
If you look at Greenaway’s subsequent film, Belly of an Architect, the title character (robustly played by Brian Dennehy) discovers aspects of himself and the world around him through a careful examination of his own fatal illness. Since it’s more directly experienced, it also packs greater resonance. And if love is as strong as death, Greenaway’s treatment of romantic couplings is more desperately carnal in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book. But Oswald and Oliver passively fawn over their girlfriend, the one-legged, hospitalized beauty Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), as if she were their pet science project. Even when one of them impregnates her, it’s treated like lab business when Alba says, “What’s a few spermatozoa among brothers?”
None of Greenaway’s films take place in anything resembling naturalism or realism, and they don’t feel modern. They’re like archaic storybook adaptations of Jacobean plays illustrated by Vermeer. The people that inhabit this strange new world have the airs and affectations of Shakespearian kings and queens humiliated when they inevitably get stripped naked—and Greenaway’s no prude. His cinema of the flesh is the great equalizer, since he seems attracted to bodies of both sexes, in all shapes and sizes, from flabby to voluptuous. Zed & Two Noughts contains all of his standard preoccupations, and perhaps its lack of interest in character development and human feeling only helps to isolate the single-mindedness of Greenaway’s cinema.
One can’t admire the formal qualities of Zed & Two Noughts without also mentioning the brilliant work of Greenaway’s two most prized collaborators. They both deserve a lion’s share of credit for the tone and texture of this film and, indeed, Greenaway’s main body of work. The gorgeous compositions and expressionistic lighting, particularly when flickering lights illuminate objects darkened in the foreground and background, is courtesy of master cinematographer Sacha Vierny (whose canon includes Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Belle de Jour.) The score of composer Michael Nyman makes liberal use of old and new instruments, and his ornately patterned rhythms feel like the “noises, sounds, and sweet airs” that Caliban referred to in The Tempest.
As mentioned earlier, Greenaway seems to have been moving away from cinema altogether, expressing an interest in moving beyond the constrictions of the rectangular or square frame. Since he’d already blown apart traditional storytelling from his very first projects, it seems logical he’d abandon the movie image as well. But the re-release of Zed & Two Noughts and The Draughtsman’s Contract on DVD by Zeitgeist Films does whet the appetite for Greenaway to eventually return to this so-called “dead” medium, love him or hate him. Good news for the faithful: He recently completed Nightwatching, a film about Rembrandt (played by Martin Freeman of BBC’s The Office), and some have claimed it is a return to form after a lengthy hibernation. Parochial and provocative, snooty and vulgar, a tastemaker and a punk, our man Greenaway stands alone in contemporary world cinema, for better or worse.