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Symmetries

May 21, 2009

A Zed and Two NoughtsPeter Greenaway’s 1985 film A Zed and Two Noughts is a film of symbols, ciphers and luminous surface beauty, with only a passing resemblance to anything that could be considered reality. It nails its colours to the mast from the first scene; a woman wails histrionically, her car butting up against a toppled lamp-post with a swan lying dead across its bonnet, its feathers filling the air. The wives of twin zoologists Oswald and Oliver Deuce are killed in the accident, who channel their grief into bizarre studies of evolution and decomposition, which they see as the twin poles of life.

The film is visually stunning; in his introduction to the film, Peter Greenaway states that one of his aims was to use 26 different kinds of lighting in an homage to Johannes Vermeer, and the cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who also photographed Last Year in Marienbad) does an incredible job of realising this. Vermeer’s paintings are a recurring element in the film, and a painterly sensibility also influences the framing of every scene in the film. In combination with the outlandish, affected performances and dialogue, this places the film firmly in a realm of symbolist unreality.

One of the most interesting facets of the film for me, is its theme of symmetry. Oswald and Oliver, though initially quite different in appearence, become slowly more alike until they are virtually indistinguishable by the end of the film. Alba Bewick, the driver of the car in which the zoologists’ wives died, lost her leg after the accident, but later in the film has the remaining, perfectly healthy leg amputated too on the advice of the surgeon Van Meegeren (who is revealed to be a descendent of a famous forger of Vermeer’s works).

Symmetries are an important concept in physics; in particle physics, the properties of the fundamental forces of nature are greatly affected by the symmetry group to which they belong. While these symmetries are common, they are often broken, for example the quark flavour symmetry which is broken by the Yukawa interaction, leading to the each of the quark flavours having different masses. This is in turn related to the `hidden’ electroweak symmetry breaking, via the Higgs mechanism, that allows the quarks to have masses at all. An example of particular interest to me (since it is the topic of my PhD thesis) is the breaking of Charge & Parity (CP) symmetry, which results in differences between the behaviour of matter and antimatter.

In fact, CP violation is one of the conditions required for this Universe to exist at all. This has often struck me as being a strange parallel with the creation myth of Gnosticism. Within this mythology,  Æons are ’emanations’ of god created in male-female pairs inhabiting a pure, and purely spiritual Universe. The asymmetric emanation of one of the Æons, Sophia, without her partner birthed the Demiurge, who in turn created the imperfect, physical Universe. Oswald and Oliver seem to share this Gnostic fascination with symmetry, equating it with perfection, completeness and vitality, noting that symmetry is one of the first things to be lost when an organism decays. By the end of the film, when their full symmetry is restored, the brothers lose their individuation and seem to be almost a single entity, trying to return to the conjoined state in which they were born. They perform their ultimate experiment in the final scene of the film, leaving themselves to rot away in a snail-infested field, a time-lapse camera recording their fate.

In doing this they return to the ultimate state of symmetry, uniform under every translation or rotation; the empty void before and after the brief, asymmetric imperfection of life. 

The universe is asymmetric and I am persuaded that life, as it is known to us, is a direct result of the asymmetry of the universe or of its indirect consequences.”  – Louis Pasteur

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