Seen at Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Director: Ivan I. Tvedovsky

Writer: Ivan I. Tvedovsky

Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Dmitry Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko

Original title: Zoologia

Russia, France, Germany 2016

87 mins

Ivan I. Tvedovsky’s second feature film is a bold fable about non-conformity that is not always successful at blending genres.

In Zoology, his second feature film – the first was Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014) – director Ivan I. Tvedovsky confirms his evident predilection for films about non-normative bodies. While his debut was about a wheelchair-bound girl with myopathy, his new film takes the theme a little further.

Zoology is about a lonely and rather frumpy middle-aged woman, Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova), who lives a rather mundane and uneventful life and seems to have no social contacts save for her superstitiously religious mother, with whom she lives. Her desk-bound job at a local zoo offers little human respite as her colleagues dislike her and tease and bully her. At one point, they fill one of her desk drawers with rats and mock her as she screams at the unexpected swarm of rodents. It seems her only solace is in wandering around the zoo and nurturing the caged animals – one of a number of sometimes stretched metaphors the filmmaker employs in this near-fable. The realm of the fabulous kicks in when this solitary, ignored, and it seems, defeated woman makes a curious discovery about her body: she has grown a tail. At which point I must take note of the impressive, touching and brave performance of actress Natalia Pavlenkova who carries off this difficult role with such aplomb and charm. She has definitely earned her Best Actress Awards at European festivals.

Natasha is at first horrified and embarrassed by her new-found appendage and seeks medical advice. The scenes at the clinic, however, present the first inklings of a problem that hampers the film somewhat. As the visits to the medical clinic are of a serious nature and are shot in a very realistic style (Tverdovsky cut his teeth on documentaries), a satire on the indifference of the Russian medical establishment ensues, which obfuscates the film’s deeper intentions. And therein lies one of a rather lame group of satirical commentaries parachuted into the film, which distract, and even divert from the plot. Now this may be a case of failed national comedy cross-overs, but they operate much more as awkward plot digressions, and this contributes to the fact that the film doesn’t entirely succeed as either fable, moral lesson, curious romantic comedy, parable or fairy tale.

As Natasha becomes less embarrassed and more empowered by her ‘difference’ and uniqueness she encounters a younger, handsome medical assistant who becomes fascinated with, and enamored of, her. They commence a beatific erotic liaison as both parties, in a romantic bubble, come to accept and love the tail (a persuasive if uncanny special effects prosthetic and CGI motion appendage) until it soon becomes evident, in a strange tail-fellating scene, that the young man loves her in the main for this part of her body. Talk about chasing tail!

As this realisation becomes clear to Natasha, her hard-won confidence and newly found ‘mojo’ begin to crumble. Understanding that her unusualness does not bring happiness she decides that she has to finally resolve the situation – an outcome that will not be spoiled in this review.

A film about romance, fragility, the fabulous, the courage to stand out from the crowd and the pressures of conformist society, Zoology is a brave film in a cinematic world of realistic or frothy and formulaic offerings. Not wholly successful in putting a narrative foot firmly down in any of the several genres introduced into the story, and not always clear in several motives and occurrences – there are a few plot holes and unconvincing happenings – Tvedovsky is definitely to be applauded for an audacious, interesting, arresting film – however curious and at times un-persuasive. Long may the spirit of independent visions last. Recommended viewing.

James B. Evans

Zoology screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 6, 8, and 11 October 2016.