by Warren Cantrell on September 21, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

The story of an average woman in her 50s who starts growing a tail one day, Zoology is just as weird as it sounds (nay, weirder, even). Granted, weird can be fun, interesting, and enlightening, yet Zoology never cashes in this potential currency to connect the dots of the subtext sprinkled all throughout it. And as a Russian film that plays up the notion of “other,” it is hard to separate the politics of the picture’s host country from its subject matter, a failing which ultimately sinks this high-concept drama. And while there is a lot of interesting food for thought here, it is largely left out to rot: uneaten.

Zoology opens in a small office, where two catty, mean-spirited ladies barely notice when their coworker, Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), collapses. The two women seem more upset that their lunch has been interrupted than concerned for Natasha, who they seem to take a perverse pleasure in bullying. After she regains consciousness, Natasha picks up with her lonely life right where she left off, going home to her dilapidated apartment where her mother and cat await her. Without makeup, and bleached of pretty much all color (like the world around her), Natasha drifts through her life stone-faced and seemingly empty.

What’s more, as the opening scene demonstrates, she’s not feeling well, and it’s not long before she’s in a doctor’s office looking to get at the root of what’s really ailing her: the sudden appearance of a tail. For their part, the doctors seem nonplused, and treat the new appendage like an ordinary breakout of a rash or warts. Natasha’s small coastal community is another story, however, where her priest refuses her communion, and rumors of a demon witch with a tail circulate among the town’s circle of old ladies (Natasha’s mother included). Yet a budding relationship with her X-ray technician, perhaps the first romance Natasha has ever experienced, inspires Natasha, who begins to take ownership of her personal and professional life.

What follows is akin to the opening of a flower: a rebirth or Spring-like revival. As she embraces her tail, so too does Natasha begin to embrace life: taking risks, speaking up at work, exploring her sexuality, and actively grooming her appearance to make herself feel sexy. Yet this is where the metaphors of the movie get a little muddy, because whether Natasha’s sudden transformation is a stand-in for LGBTQ awareness, the disenfranchisement of older women, or menopause, Zoology doesn’t really know what to do with all of it. It’s obvious that director Ivan Tverdovskiy is trying to say something about the power of public scrutiny, the dangers of individuality, and/or the place of middle-aged women in modern Russian society, yet figuring out just what that is feels like trying to hit a moving bullseye.

At first, Natasha’s romance with her X-ray tech, Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), seems like the catalyst for her personal awakening, and a harbinger of positive growth as a result of the tail, yet as time goes on, his motivation for being with her turns ugly. Likewise, Natasha’s newfound sense of confidence and self-worth are smothered by her community once she begins to flaunt her tail in public, and seems to act as a punishment for the embrace of uniqueness. As interesting (and sort of humorous) as these scenes are, they don’t lead to anything resembling a thematic thesis, and leave more questions than answers for the audience.

And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, considering the weighty themes Zoology plays with (middle-aged body confidence, LGBTQ acceptance, sexism, bullying, etc.), the path it takes towards its conclusion feels troubling. Without giving too much away, by the third act, Natasha finds that any confidence or newfound vitality that the tail might provide is outweighed by the troubles it has caused her. As she struggles to find a place in her community as the tail-wagging independent woman she’s become, it’s hard not to wonder what the movie is trying to say about embracing one’s honest self.

Standing up for one’s self, and/or responsibly embracing the thing(s) that makes a person unique should be something one celebrates, not cautions against. Yet caution is precisely what Zoology seems to preach as it concerns these matters, and unless this is all a rebuke of the Russian state’s clampdown on dissent (hardly likely since the film opens with a title card certifying its approval by Russia’s official state film board), the whole effort seems suspect at best, and questionable at worst.

Whether Zoology is a misguided parable about the dangers of individuality, or an unfocused attempt to say something about the nature of humanity, the film itself is a capably made one. Pavlenkova is a revelation as Natasha, and seems totally in control of her body and voice throughout the picture. She plays to the camera with a magnificent, muted sort of disposition that opens and contracts in deliberate increments throughout the film: much like a rose that blooms, then begins to wilt. Pavlenkova also plays well off of Groshev, who is charming enough to keep the audience guessing about his character’s motives from his first scene to his last.

Great acting and an interesting concept can only bring a movie so far, though, and the fact that Zoology doesn’t really know what it wants to say sinks the thing. Opening this week at the Screenland at Tapcade after a successful run in the festival circuit, Zoology is a headscratcher, but an admittedly interesting one. What it lacks in thematic focus it almost makes up for with its concept and fantastic cast…almost.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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