Arrow Video: Zoology (2016) - Reviewed

Providing humans with animal features as a gateway into social commentary regarding individuality, sexuality and eventual ostracizing seems to be the newfound trend in modern cinema.  Two years ago we saw the mermaid/body horror musical The Lure from Poland and now here is Zoology from Russia.  The second feature from newcomer Ivan I. Tverdovsky, Zoology concerns Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a lonely middle-aged woman who lives at home with her mother when she isn’t being berated by her co-workers at a local zoo. 

One morning however, she awakens with a strange physical abnormality: a tail.  After seeing a young doctor about her strange new appendage, she quickly begins an affair with the doctor.  Thus begins this sad and isolated woman’s journey towards…self-discovery?  Transcendence?  Sexual awakening?  Self-destruction?  Zoology touches on all of these notions in this offbeat, oddly romantic fairy tale which doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul but is clearly spoken of the same breath regarding the social outcast and the age gap between the elder woman and her young lover. 

Shot in a style akin to the Dardenne Brothers’ shaky hand-held camerawork with tracking shots which follow behind the actor’s head as well as including frequent whip-pans, Zoology places you in this downbeat old woman’s shoes.  Thanks in large part to Natalya Pavlenkova’s daring performance, exposing herself in a light most actresses would be afraid to be seen, Zoology functions as an often compelling and poignant character study.  Conformity is the social order in Zoology, thus emboldening Natasha’s self-confidence and sexual drive.  The poster image alone should clue viewers in to what kind of new behaviors and sensations Natasha indulges in the wake of her new appendage.

Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, it also paints Russia as a dismally barren open sea with decrepit buildings, cold weather and little to nothing differentiating the impoverished from the wealthy.  Adding to the film’s bleak visual schema are the preexisting piano tunes which cast a dark shadow over the proceedings.  Even when things seem to be on the upward for Natasha, the music suggests otherwise.  Sound design is often minimalist and deliberately understated save for one sequence of Natasha attending a nightclub, largely staying within the insular and quiet perspective of Natasha.

Deadpan and downbeat, funny and sad, director Tverdovsky’s second feature shows enormous promise though this is largely Pavlenkova’s movie for taking on a character most actresses would shy away from.  If there’s a complaint to make, the proceedings are cut a bit short with an ambiguous finale echoing the cold and dark coda of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster.  That said, Tverdovsky’s surreal update of Fassbinder’s classic and loose critique of contemporary Russian society is a truly unique tale of finding one’s wings in a world eager to rip them apart.  Natasha’s journey is debatable in regards to whether or not she finds happiness, but at least she finally knows who she is in the end.

- Andrew Kotwicki