How Much of the Body Can You Lose and Still Recognize Yourself?

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Midway through Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, car-crash survivor Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferréol) cries out despairingly, “How much of the body can you lose and still recognize yourself?” For Alba, it’s a live question: having lost one leg to the car-swan collision that opens the film and kills the wives of her twin now-lovers, Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon), she now stands to lose the other in an effort by her surgeon, Van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen), to prevent spinal shock—or to make her easier to trap in his Vermeer-inspired tableaux vivants, one of the two. Alba fears the loss of her body, and with it, her sense of self. Peter Greenaway, though, approaches this same question across Z+00 with less terror than curiosity: what makes a body itself, he asks. For that matter, what makes a movie a movie? If I, Peter Greenaway, give you, the audience, a film that resists doing most of the things that movies are supposed to do, does it still count?

How much of the body can you lose and still recognize yourself?

Trying to pin down what defines an art form is surprisingly tricky. On the first day of an undergrad class in fiction, my professor passed around a Xeroxed definition of “the novel.” As best as I remember, it ran something like this: “Generally an extended piece of prose fiction, although some novels are very short, some are written in verse, and others are not fictional, at all.” That sort of transcendently unspecific non-answer is pretty common no matter the object of concern. Perhaps the most pop-culturally saturated iteration of this definitional problem is encapsulated by Justice Potter Stewart’s famous claim about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Generally, the “I know it when I see it” litmus test works pretty well: the question “Do you want to go see a movie tonight?” doesn’t need to prompt an existential crisis over what, exactly, this “movie” thing is all about. Where things get complicated is when questions of what a medium is become imbricated with questions of success—when what makes a movie good is the degree to which it fulfills the tenets of moviedom. Then, the question is no longer What makes A Zed and Two Noughts a movie?, but rather, Is it important that A Zed and Two Noughts is a movie rather than a novel, or a play, or a series of paintings?

Well, actually, if you’re any of the handful of friends I have individually sat down and forced to watch Z+00 over the past year and a bit, the questions are more likely to be: “What are we watching,” “Do we have to,” and “Is that man covered in snails and/or eating ground glass right now?” Peter Greenaway can be, as Elizabeth Cantwell (née Wilcox) has noted in these very pages, a profoundly alienating director. A Zed and Two Noughts is no less unpleasant than its follow-up, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover, although that unpleasantness manifests along slightly different lines—less spousal abuse and more spoilage. Neither film is a strong candidate for a dinner-and-a-movie date. I owe a lot of people a lot of apologies, is all I’m saying.

I don’t actually think, though, that Peter Greenaway cares if you like his movie. For some of the earliest theorists of film, the experience of watching film was so profoundly different to everything that came before that they decided this—the psychological connection that you, as an audience member, make with the light reflecting off a screen—this was the site of film’s medium specificity. So it’s how that psychological connection is effected—through close-ups, cuts, and other fancy camera work—that becomes the object of these theorists’ concern.

One of the remarkable and disorienting parts of A Zed and Two Noughts, to me, is that Greenaway’s camera dispenses with most of these technical possibilities. (Notably, this is Greenaway’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who shoots almost all of his later work; it’s the dialogue between the two that’s responsible for Greenaway’s distinctive visual palette.) Z+00 opens with a crane shot that swoops in over Alba Bewick’s car wreck; it’s the most mobile the camera will be for the rest of the film. Everything else is static wide shots. This is, notably, the same depth of field that Vermeer preferred, his paintings a visual echo that Greenaway returns to again and again. Close-ups and cuts are equivalently rare. It’s as though Greenaway is anxious to keep us from falling into the trap of psychological identification with his characters. It’s a strange choice for a film that, at least in broad strokes, seems to wade in the psychologically-teeming waters of sex and death and grief.

Two of Oliver’s lines seem to me particularly relevant here. Returning from their wives’ funeral, Oliver turns to his twin brother Oswald and says, “I just can’t bear the thought of her rotting away.” It’s one of the few emotionally raw moments in the whole film—and it’s immediately undermined. Instead of sidestepping death’s aftermath, both brothers become obsessed with it, exploring the evolutionary origins of life through David Attenborough and the biological processes of death through stop-motion films of plants and animals as they decay. (Even the large ZOO sign that echoes the film’s title gets in on this: at the movie’s close, it is filmed from behind, as the animals of the zoo returns to ooz[e].) His struggle to understand life and death, Oliver says, is a process of trying to “separate the real clues from the red herrings.”

Psychology, a certain human way of looking at the world, is Greenaway’s red herring. To categorize A Zed and Two Noughts as any kind of meditation on grief would be to discount the way that Greenaway holds his characters at a physical and emotional remove—using everything from obscure taxonomic naming conventions (twins named Deuce, the surgeon Van Meegeren and his nurse-assistant Catarina Bolnes) to Brechtian declamatory acting. In many scenes—in Oswald’s apartment, in the movie theater where Oliver screens his David Attenborough documentaries—the characters are literally pushed to the sides of the frame. In place of pride at the center of these shots are, instead, the accoutrements of film itself: screens, projectors, the stop-motion camera set-up through which the Deuces film their evolutionary decay. Greenaway foregrounds medium specificity as his thematic concern in these scenes by de-emphasizing the human in favor of cinema’s technological materiality.

This focus on the technological is not incompatible with the movie’s other obsession with death and decay. Rather, in the conjunction of the two, Greenaway finds film’s great possibilities. Oliver asks Oswald to describe for him the steps of his wife’s decomposition: bloat, blowflies, maggots, etc. What he’s really asking his brother to describe, though, is the way that time is made material, is marked on the body. Time made flesh: this is the process of decay. Time made manifest: this is film.