Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Peter Greenaway, 1985
Starring: Andrea Ferreol, Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Frances Barber, Joss Ackland

Peter Greenaway's third feature length film and second to follow a traditional narrative structure is one of his absolute best. There is a major accident in front of the zoo involving a collision between three women in a car and a low-flying female swan. The two women in the backseat die instantly, and the third, Alba Bewick, has a leg amputated. The husbands of the two dead women are brothers Oswald and Oliver Deuce, who work at the zoo studying animal behavior. They suffer extreme depression and become obsessed with learning about the biological process of death. Using the zoo equipment, they study and film the decay rate of a variety of animals. Venus de Milo, the zoo's local prostitute and writer of erotic fiction, attempts to console them and they both begin sexual relationships with her. She also convinces them to meet and reconnect.

They regularly visit Alba and begin a threesome with her. Soon they are fired from the zoo for using the equipment and begin setting the animals free. It is revealed that Alba was pregnant and miscarried during the crash. She becomes pregnant again through her relationship with Oliver and Oswald, who are revealed to be twins, ultimately Siamese twins that were separated at birth. They become intrigued by an image of a picturesque country garden Alba grew up in, L'Escargot, and visit it. Meanwhile Alba's doctor, who is obsessed with Vermeer, amputates her other leg and uses her to recreate a Vermeer painting, "Lady at the Virginals." She gives birth to twins, who are adopted by a legless man she met at the zoo. Her body is tired and broken, so she dies, promising the twins can film her decay. When her family predictably refuse, Oliver and Oswald travel to L'Escargot and film themselves dying. Though they appeared physically different at the beginning of the film, by this point they are identical and wish to revert to their original Siamese form.

The film is inter-spliced with videos of time-lapse animal decay and wildlife documentaries about the origins of life and evolution. The voice overs are taken from Life on Earth, the famed nature documentary series narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Many of the ideas here come from Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal and The Human Zoo. At least a part of the film is thematically concerned with life as a zoo, as well as the animalistic urges felt by humans. The zoo setting fits particularly well into Greenaway's need to count and catalog, which is replicated in Oliver and Oswald's need to document death within the film. Greenaway gives free reign to his organizing principle with Zed, arranging things by the 26 letters of the alphabet, the 26 paintings of Vermeer, and the 26 different ways he lit various scenes.

As with The Draughtsman's Contract, Zed lacks any real explanation of the events and carefully underplays comic elements in the script. There is explicit nudity and several thoroughly un-erotic scenes where sex is implied but not shown. As with most of Greenaway's films, sex is a power play and a way to realize one's obsessions. Like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and 8 1/2 Women, it's also a way to process grief. 

There are a wide variety of interconnected themes within the film. Zoos, collections, animals, particularly black and white species, and an overall black and white schematic as in The Draughtsman's Contract. There is a particular fascination with swans and many references to Leda, who was seduced by Zeus while he was disguised as a swan. The same night, she had sex with her husband, resulting in two eggs, one which hatched the twins Castor and Pollux and the other with the beautiful Helen and the treacherous Clytemnestra. These children are fathered by both Zeus and Leda's husband Tyndareus, as Alba claims her twins are fathered by both Oliver and Oswald. As with The Draughtsman's Contract, the themes of fertility, pregnancy, legacy, gardens, and the garden of Eden are of major importance. This is juxtaposed with a clinical, scientific study of death and decomposition. The larger framework of the narrative is organized by measuring, collecting, cataloging, classifying and story telling. Zed is also obsessed with twin-ship, doubling, symmetry, and repetition. It may take several repeat viewings to catch these clever, subtle layers. Weaving all these elements together narratively and visually is where Greenaway's real genius lies.

Zed is visually reliant on Vermeer and it helps to be familiar with the great Dutch painter and his work before you see the film. Several images are recreated on screen, namely "The Lady in the Red Hat" and "Lady at the Virginals." As in The Draughtsman's Contract, the characters are placed in still life-like tableaux with an emphasis on symmetry. The work by cinematographer Sacha Vierny makes this film a near masterpiece. Though Vierny would work with Greenaway for the rest of his life, this was their first collaboration together. Vierny was primarily known for his work with Resnais and on art-house films like Belle de Jour. An interesting experiment carried out by Greenaway and Vierny was to have 26 different lighting sources throughout the scenes. They use flashlights, car headlights, TV monitors, fluorescents, and, apparently, an artificial rainbow. The use of color and texture is breathtaking, particularly during the sequences with time-lapse photography of decaying animals. Speaking of collaborations, there is yet another excellent, minimalist score from Greenaway's regular composer Michael Nyman, who makes used of a repetitive, melancholic theme mixed with recordings of children's songs like “Teddy Bear Picnic” and “Elephants Never Forget.”

The film benefits from the two eccentric female lead performances from well-known French actress Andréa Ferréol (La grande bouffe) and Frances Barber, a British stage actress who also made regular appearances on British TV shows like Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. Her character, the prostitute Venus de Milo, is named after one of the world's most famous statues, which notably lacks arms and was allegedly holding an apple in her missing left hand. There is also an oddly angry performance from the extremely prolific Joss Ackland. The twins, played by Brian and Eric Deacon, are brothers, not actually twins, and both appear in British film and television, though this is their biggest role. 

The Zeitgeist DVD, whose late 2007 release coincided with The Draughtsman's Contract, was lovingly restored by BFI and comes highly recommended. The vivid colors pop out of the screen and you can see every detail of the twitching decay that is present throughout so much of the film. Included is an introduction and detailed commentary from Greenaway, behind the scenes shots, the complete animal decay footage, and a few other goodies. Allegedly the region-free BFI Blu-ray is the best bang for your buck with a glowing print and the same extras as the Zeitgeist DVD, plus Sea in Their Blood, an early short film about the British coast.

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