Zoology is torn between grotesque body horror and the aesthetics of naturalism and handheld camerawork. The latter helps produce an atmosphere which emphasises the extremely lonely life led by Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova). The muted colour palette, lack of much visible modern technology, and destitute appearance of Natasha’s neighbourhood all ground the story in an era still feeling at least the vestiges of Soviet socialism, yet this political backdrop is never satisfyingly connected to the narrative. Though Zoology gestures to the extreme response its religious community have to physical difference (see also LFF 2016’s Indivisible), it never draws any conclusions.
The subject matter that receives the best articulation is the high school-like environment of Natasha’s workplace. She is mercilessly mocked and bullied by her colleagues, who constitute a network of gossipers like that through which rumours of her tail gradually spread.
The film’s sympathetic tone is complicated by Natasha’s surprising and inconclusive character development. After initial distress, Tverdovskiy demonstrates that she grows in confidence once her tail is fully grown. Her personal style changes and her behaviour becomes more reckless (animalistic?). Is this simply a development of confidence, an owning of her otherness, or a return to the primitivism symbolised by her new appendage? No answers are offered or suggested, and Zoology remains irritatingly contradictory and elusive. Rather than a deliberate ambiguity allowing for interpretation, this comes across as a lack of narrative and symbolic certainty. The denouement, however disturbing, does at least provide a welcome break from the inconsequentiality of what has gone before by upping the stakes and pace considerably.
An intriguing premise becomes a meandering, unclear contemplation – with a fitting visual motif of walking – yet never receives much payoff. See it for the fearless, chameleonic performance by Natalya Pavlenkova, or not at all.
CAST: Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitriy Groshev, Masha Tokareva, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Anna Astashkina, Yuriy Vnukov
DIRECTOR: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
WRITER: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
SYNOPSIS: A lonely middle-aged zoo employee has her life turned upside down when she mysteriously grows a tail.