Friday, January 15, 2016

My Favorite Peter Greenaway Film

"A Zed & Two Noughts," or "ZOO," is one of Peter Greenaway's earliest films, and the one to really cement his particular style.  Each shot is elaborately composed, always static or nearly so, always brimming over with meaningful symbols and references to Greenaway's favorite artists.  "Zed" includes a character named Venus De Milo (Frances Barber), and recreations of Vermeer paintings.  Most importantly, this is the first time that Greenaway would collaborate with cinematographer Sacha Vierny.  The film also features my favorite compositions by Greenaway's longtime composer Michael Nyman.

"Zed" is a study of obsession, conforming to a very severe, formal set of self-imposed rules.  The story concerns a pair of twin zoologists, Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian Deacon and Eric Deacon), who lose their wives in the film's opening moments to a car accident.  The driver, Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), survives but loses a leg.  Oswald and Oliver become obsessed with death and decay, creating time-lapse films of various animals decomposing, starting small and then working their way up the food chain.  They become romantically involved with Alba, one after the other.  They also fixate on snails, on black and white animals, on symmetry, on fine art, and on each other.  The decomposition films come at regular intervals, accompanied by frenzied violin music.

Peter Greenaway's films always require some degree of decoding, but they all share similar elements.  The stories always involve an obsession or unchecked passion that runs amok and leads to destruction.  The visuals are always far more important to the storytelling than the dialogue.  His mise-en-scene is all based on beautifully lit tableaux, the shots are long, and the characters larger than life.  Greenway is absolutely maniacal when it comes to the fine details.  Notice the female lead's name, Alba, is almost a palindrome, except that it has that pesky "l," comparable to the lone leg that prevents Alba herself from being perfectly symmetrical like her doting lovers.  Everything in a Greenaway film reflects the central themes, in this case symmetry, order, death, and decomposition.

It's those decomposition films that stayed with me the most, the way that they suggested that death are not static and quiet, but rather a tumultuous, violent process as the bodies are broken down and disintegrated.  Sped up by the camera, they are positively lively as the rot and bacteria do their work.  None of the characters here are particularly memorable by themselves - the twins are barely distinguishable and blandly handsome - but the way in which they are placed in each scene, and the way each of them gradually comes to fulfill their function within the elaborate system constructed within the film's universe, is fascinating.  Watching the three leads all whirl deeper and deeper into madness, losing themselves in their shared vision of being one, perfect, symmetrical, decaying, organism, preserved on film as the final artistic and scientific culmination of their grand design, is as lovely as it is insane.

The roots of Peter Greenaway's films are the old masters of traditional painting, illustration, sculpture, and architecture, making him a fairly unique figure in the cinema.  His films are ambitiously conceived, play entirely by their own rules, and are utterly fearless in execution. Greenaway has no use for the usual conventions of commercial filmmaking, and happily includes as much nudity and vulgarity as he believes is appropriate to get his vision across - all presented with such a painterly eye, you'd never think for a moment that it was meant to be titillating.  Shocking and provocative, yes, but not titillating.  His films are Art with a capital A, without apology, and there aren't many directors that can say that anymore.

At the same time, his work is still consistently entertaining.  I love that he references obscure artists constantly, tackles all kinds of extreme content like cannibalism and rape, and makes it all look so gorgeous.  I love his sense of humor too, as sick as it is. The final sequence of "Zed," where the twins collaborate on their final film to the tune of "Teddy Bear's Picnic," had me grinning at the macabre whimsy.  Greenaway's films have gotten less audience-friendly over the years, and more obscure, but I'm happy every time I've heard he's made a new one.

And that Michael Nyman score really is to die for.
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What I've Seen - Peter Greenaway

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)
A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
The Belly of an Architect (1987)
Drowning by Numbers (1988)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Prospero's Books (1991)
The Baby of Mâcon (1993)
The Pillow Book (1996)
The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2005)
Nightwatching (2007)
Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2008)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)

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