Russia (2016) Dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
If you ask most women what gives them a boost to their self-confidence – I suppose this could also apply to men – the expected answer would be a new job, nice clothes, new hairstyle and probably a drop in weight too. Imagine if your opening to a happier world came from an entirely different source?
Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) is a downtrodden middle-aged woman living with her God fearing mother (Irina Chipizhenko) and working at a small coastal zoo where she is teased and tormented by her co-workers. Having collapsed at work Natasha goes to the doctor who sends her for an X-Ray of her lower back where the pain is. Apparently Natasha has suddenly grown a tail.
Performing the x-rays is Peter (Dmitri Groshev), a younger man who flirts with Natasha and begins a relationship with her, boosting Natasha’s self-esteem as she undergoes an image change to embrace this new positive direction in her life. As Natasha’s happiness and confidence grows, everything else around her begins to change too, but sadly not for the better.
Historically Russian cinema is known for producing films that don’t offer straightforward entertainment, their output notorious for being allegorical commentary on the country’s turbulent socio-political issues. Zoology is no different but its whimsical Kafka-esque central premise takes the edge off for anyone fearing this to be a typically dour experience, allowing it to be viewed as a pseudo-black comedy instead.
Because the mysterious arrival of Natasha’s additional appendage is never explained and serves a symbolic catalyst, taking this film as it comes, just as the cast do, is the best approach if you don’t wish to ponder the messages writer-director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy hopes to impart, but even for the less inclined viewer, some may seep through the dense caustic net anyway.
If it matters, Natasha’s tail isn’t fluffy or small but long and fleshy and if this conjures images and possibilities of a priapic nature, these are explored by Natasha during a bath scene and… well, let’s not spoil anything. Natasha seems to take this development in her stride, as does Peter who conspires to hide this from his colleagues yet is somehow bewitched enough to pursue this dowdy spinster.
Before this, Natasha was the victim of the childish behaviour of her stereotypical Russian women colleagues: built like male wrestlers and looking like them too. One, who could safely be labelled clinically obese, has the nerve to call Natasha “fat” when she is the slimmest of the lot. And with her mother’s foreboding sermons of the apocalypse coming to Russia, Natasha is quickly established as a sympathetic character in need of a break.
Peter is the gateway to that break, which sees the pair of them acting like two lovestruck teenagers – literally. The sight of Natasha and Peter sledging down a snowy hill on hospital washbasins giggling uncontrollably like kids is the first of many instances where the clock is turned back for them, obviously a bit further for Natasha, as though life is beginning again for them both.
A haircut, dye job and a younger wardrobe rejuvenates Natasha and her spirit, putting her at odds with her colleagues and superiors, their open disgust at her “inappropriate” attire marking the first true allegory of the film – old Russia vs. new Russia. Everybody over a certain age is stuffy, opinionated and stuck in a rut while the younger generation are keen to embrace new ideas and seek progression in life.
Rumours abound about the devil having arrived, in the form of a woman with a tail, coming to eat everyone’s souls. Propagating this are the gossiping old biddies and pious geriatrics like Natasha’s mum, unaware that this “devil” is her own daughter, whilst Peter sees this as a fascinating and attractive quality of Natasha’s, offering a release from her trapped adult life.
Then again, it might just be about a woman with a tail and how society is so cruelly ignorant against anything that is different, illustrated by how accidental public exposure of said appendage manages to clear an entire nightclub in seconds. This is where Tverdovskiy essentially imitates the crux of his own story by polarising the audience as to what ideas he is trying to share here.
Zoology therefore works on two levels thematically and, political allusion aside, can be seen as either an uplifting parable about finding that one thing about you to boost you sense of self worth and get a second chance, or a gloomy polemic about relying too much on the approval of others to satiate your ego but be prepared for disappointment when the novelty wears off.
Ultimately, both interpretations come to the same conclusion – that people are resistant and hostile towards change and anything alien or they don’t understand. Tverdovskiy crystallises this in the final act, a domino effect of crushing disappointments heading towards an abrupt final shot of potentially ambiguous tragic consequences, the most shocking and chilling moment of the entire film.
Being just the second film for Tverdovskiy, the direction is surprisingly mature and assured and while his concepts show great imagination, the style is very much in touch with the naturalistic and gritty mise en scene of his Russian peers and seniors. Natalya Pavlenkova if the heartbeat of this film, absolutely throwing herself into the role of Natasha, proving an unlikely commanding presence on the screen.
Modern Russian cinema is a strange beast, beholden to its past through covering issue of the same social despair yet striving to break new ground with its ideas and approach to them. Zoology is emblematic of this whilst its surreal bent is Yorgos Lanthimos-lite in ambition and execution.
A beguiling film from a young director possessing an interesting new voice in world cinema, this often arcane but enigmatic outing is likely to appeal to cineastes looking for a different flavour to satiate their demanding viewing palate.