On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: The Swan, The Twins, Their Wives, and Their Deaths

The line between midnight movies and arthouse cinema has always been blurrier than we might like to believe. Both niches exist to accommodate creators (and their fans) who crave something different from conventional Hollywood fare and are willing to seek out unorthodox screening options like festivals and independent theaters in order to scratch that itch. And while they have both produced plenty of forgettable fare from artists who became too comfortable existing in yesterday’s version of transgression — we’ve all seen far too many Oscar bait roadtrip dramas and lamely self-aware horror comedies — at their best, they both represent what’s possible when creativity isn’t limited by conventional industry logic.

I can’t think of a filmmaker who has done a more interesting job of standing with a foot in each world than Peter Greenaway. The British filmmaker has made a career out of work that pulls from his background studying traditional Renaissance paintings and his fascination with all things taboo in equal measure. The term “every frame is a painting” is insufferably overused in film discussions, but he’s one filmmaker to whom it applies quite literally. His films are best understood as a series of images that invoke the oil paintings works of Old Masters as Greenaway flexes his singular understanding of color, space, and fashion in each meticulously composed shot. Lest that sound like a dull cinematic homework assignment, he finds great joy in filling his scripts with the seven deadly sins and turning each film into a full-throated assault on the very idea of good taste.

You can use quite a few films to make the case that Greenaway should be treated as a midnight movie director, from his mainstream breakthrough “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” to the utterly depraved “The Baby of Macon.” But I can’t think of any that embody the spirit of IndieWire After Dark better than “A Zed & Two Noughts.”

Greenaway’s third feature might be his first one that’s worth remembering — in no small part because it launched his collaboration with cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who played a crucial role in developing his distinct aesthetic. In keeping with this column’s recent focus on depraved animal films, it follows two twin zoologists who become understandably distraught after a swan crashes into a car and causes an accident that kills both of their wives. Less understandably, they begin to develop an obsession with death, decomposition, and dismemberment and soon begin devoting their lives to the misguided study of all the ways that nature can tear up our bodies.

The subsequent depravity is better left unspoiled, of course. But like many of Greenaway’s films, “A Zed & Two Noughts” builds to the reveal of a grotesque art project from someone who refused to let the unspoken laws of human decency restrict their creativity. And in a twisted way, I can’t think of many things that embody the midnight movie ethos better than that. I certainly don’t want to live in a Peter Greenaway movie, but I’ll never stop loving the people who make them. —CZ

A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS, 1985. ©Skouras Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
©Skouras Pictures/Courtesy Everett CollectionCourtesy Everett Collection

The Aftermath: Is This a Sex Movie with Grief Parts — or a Grief Movie with Sex Parts?

“Some things there’s no moving on from.”

Yes, that’s a Martin McDonagh line. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a watch-it-whenever favorite for me and almost nothing like “A Zed & Two Noughts.” But the Best Picture contender from 2022, about a pair of Irish frenemies whose inexplicable feud turns violent, came to mind even more than it usually does as I sat in awe of my first ever Peter Greenaway film.

The fact that I hadn’t seen anything else by the 81-year-old British writer/director this late into my career is something Zilko tells me could only be seen as weird at a place like IndieWire. Greenaway is avant-garde, niche, and all things considered absolutely not for everyone. Pedestrian though it may be, mainstream audiences just aren’t ready to ask the imperative question, “Is leglessness a form of contraception?” (God help them should they ever get the answer.)

Still, as an indie film site, we’ve been talking to and about Greenaway since at least 1997. Both his style and subject matter are decidedly my taste. And while I’d like to think this flabbergasting tale of vehicular swan-slaughter would have found its way to me eventually even without After Dark, I know no cinephile but Zilko with the guts to endorse a title so sensual, tragic, and disgusting all at once.

It’s not every day you experience a pastel world as reminiscent of high school biology class as it is a snuff film directed by Wes Anderson. And I can’t say I’d want to. Like shower sex had in a jet-stream of ice-cold pond water (best enjoyed in the baths behind the panda enclosure, I’m sure), Greenaway’s juxtaposition of lush eroticism and stomach-churning existentialism is almost masochistically seductive. To borrow the film’s philosophical quandary about the zebra and its stripes: Is this a sex movie with grief parts? Or a grief movie with sex parts? It feels bad and good, often at the same time.

The intertwining of those disparate emotions — and the symbolic birth/death dichotomy therein — is at the off-putting but strong-beating heart of “A Zed & Two Noughts.” From what I’ve read, it may also hold the key to the auteur’s beautiful and shocking thematic work writ large. I won’t cover my corpse in flesh-eating snails over it, but there’s definitely solace to be had in films that turn marinating in humanity’s darkest torments and most perverse pleasures into exhibitions of synchronized titillation and torture.  

As an ancestral Irish Catholic with a fondness for Kerry Condon, miniature donkeys, and theatrical revenge, “The Banshees of Inisherin” brings me a strange kind of comfort as a marriage of seething anger and absurdist humor. It’s brutal to behold, but also outrageously funny: the kind of movie that finds its footing in imbalance and deeply, deeply troubles my mother. “A Zed & Two Noughts” delivers a similarly strange and painful appeal as a mind-fuck combination of relentless horniness and unstoppable sorrow as depicted by two men stuck in a nightmare of delusional mourning. (Rest assured, I will not be recommending “A Zed & Two Noughts” to any of my relatives — least of all sweet Linda.)

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, Colin Farrell, 2022. ph: Jonathan Hession / © Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Banshees of Inisherin”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Why would your best friend of many years abandon you to play the fiddle then cut off his fingers as an act of revenge? It’s hard to say, but I imagine the answer can be found somewhere along the jagged edges of Alba Bewick’s comically shattered windshield.  

Co-mingling intense opposing emotions — particularly taboo ones like lust, wrath, grief, and repulsion — can force films of all types into the fringes by making too many people too uncomfortable. Cinematic monuments to emotional self-destruction come in all shapes and sizes, and in the IndieWire After Dark canon alone, I’ll admit there are at least a half dozen other films more easily compared to Greenaway’s ridiculous meditation on mental decay.

  • Want more seriocomic amputations? Try “The Saddest Music in the World” or “The Perfection.”
  • Need another round of pseudoscientific and/or homoerotic childrearing? Take a “Diamantino.” Then a “Junior.” Call me in the morning.
  • Have a hankering for another skinny white guy making himself into a biohazardous modern art exhibit as a final display of his unquenchable despair? “Taxidermia.” Seriously, this movie is just “Taxidermia.” Served with a pinch of “Jawbreaker” style and some “Pieces” body horror for taste.

That said, I stand by “The Banshees of Inisherin” as my personal point of comparison and an emotionally resonant sister film for “A Zed & Two Noughts.” The two complex considerations of the psychological wounds that just will not heal come to the same conclusion: Soul-eclipsing fixations, based on a personal betrayal or an avian act of God, can and will end in oblivion for the obsessive. Chewing glass? Snipping digits? Whatever the metaphor, McDonagh and Greenaway seem to agree: Don’t do that to yourself. But if you do, at least make it entertaining.

Yes, genre and graphic violent or sexual content most often decide midnight movie classification, and there’s no pretending McDonagh’s industry-embraced Oscar winner is a midnight movie — least of all when stacked up against Greenaway’s jaw-dropping, erotic tragedy. And yet, these films’ commensurate artistry, challenging emotional conceits, and ostentatious portrayals of catastrophic rumination blurred the lines for me not just between arthouse and midnight, but between midnight and mainstream.

“Tell him I’m bleeding, he’ll come.” That’s Greenaway, not McDonagh. But doesn’t it sound like “Banshees”? If only little Jenny had stripes. —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “A Zed & Two Noughts” with a subscription to the Kino Film Collection on Amazon Prime or rent it on VOD platforms.IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

  • ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ Is the Atmospheric Terror That Only Haunts You If You Let It
  • Going Ape!’ Is the Midnight Movie Skeleton Key That Unlocks the History of Monkey Cinema
  • Don’t Let ‘Evil Roy Slade’ Be Your One That Got Away

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