30th Oct2017

‘Zoology’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitriy Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Aleksandr Nekhoroshikh | Written and Directed by Ivan I. Tverdovskiy


The sophomore directorial feature of Russian youngster Ivan I. Tverdovskiy (he debuted in 2014 with Corrections Class), Zoology is an intriguing and sad slice of magical realism.

Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) is an asthenic middle-aged middle-manager, working at a zoo in a Russian coastal town. She’s lonely and shy and she lives with her elderly mother (Irina Chipizhenko). Natasha also has a tail. A real tail: a full, living continuation of the spine. The locals, including Natasha’s own mother, whisper rumours of a woman who’s “sinned with an ape”; a woman with three tails; a woman of the Devil. Local folklore is rife, isolating Natasha further. She finally decides to have her tail looked at by doctors, which brings her into contact with Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), a handsome young radiologist many years her junior.

Peter and Natasha’s Harold-and-Maude romance blossoms, and subsequently so does Natasha’s confidence and courage. She begins to laugh; to dance; to stand up to her monstrous boss, her fussy mother and her bullying colleagues. But there’s a sting in this tale. Natasha’s appendage brings a hitherto unknown wellspring of happiness – but it’s also the source of a quietly devastating character development late on, leading to a shock denouement.

Pigeonholing Zoology isn’t easy, and that’s a compliment. Is it a body horror? A character drama? A satirical black comedy in the vein of Yorgos Lanthimos? It’s all those things, yet also its own creature.

The tail itself is a MacGuffin. It could be anything that visibly differentiates Natasha from her peers. Natasha just wishes to be normal. The shrieking panic when passers-by see the tail is deliberately OTT: a reflection of how Natasha imagines others regard her. This makes Peter’s fondness for her even more heartwarming – yet equally nerve-wracking. With such low self-esteem, can we trust Natasha not to jeopardise her happiness? Can we trust that Peter is with her for the reasons she hopes?

It would be a push to call Zoology a comedy, although its high concept does bring about some amusing situations. A desperate visit to a witch doctor is hilariously unsatisfying. And Natasha’s retort to the increasingly fanciful folklore that surrounds her condition is a keeper. But mostly, it’s the kind of movie which regards a jump cut from bathroom masturbation to a church as funny. Which it kind of is, I guess. But the heart of the film is tragic. Like a Grizzly Man behind bars, Natasha tries to talk to the zoo animals – these uncomplicated beasts – with babyspeak. They’re the only ones who won’t judge her; with whom she feels a superficial affinity. Ultimately, it’s a film about the simple intimacy of acceptance.

Tverdovskiy shoots with a Mr Lazarescu-like chilly, realist eye. The world is pallid, almost colourless, as if seen through the eyes of the depressed. His use of close-ups, particularly in the burgeoning romance between doctor and patient, leaves nowhere to hide. Natasha is accepting her vulnerability, no longer ashamedly keeping others at a distance.

Zoology feels like a short film stretched to 90 minutes at times, and perhaps there’s a layer of humour which will be lost on English-speaking audiences. But for fans of independent oddities, it’s a real gem: well-made, profound, dryly humorous, tragic, and further proof of a great new talent.

Zoology is out on Blu-ray and DVD on October 30th, from Arrow Academy.


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