Issue 58 (2017)

Ivan Tverdovskii: Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2017

zoologiaZoology is the second feature by one of Russia’s youngest contemporary film directors, Ivan I. Tverdovskii (b. 1988), who also wrote the film’s script. Like his critically acclaimed debut, Correction Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014), Zoology is informed by Tverdovskii’s documentary training and background: the story is narrated with a sense of cinema véritéimmediacy and is replete with provisionally scripted dialogues, hand-held camera movements, jump cuts, as well as natural locations and lighting. The subjects of Tverdovskii’s two features portray distinctly different generations: Correction Class focuses on teenagers suffering from physical and psychological impairments, while Zoology’s lead character is a 50-something female. Although the director’s second feature abandons the depiction of adolescents and young adults (a generation much closer to his own age), he remains true to the overall theme of his oeuvre since his early documentary shorts, namely the poignant exploration of what it means to be an “outcast” in today’s Russia or anywhere else for that matter. Similar to Correction Class, Zoology’s acrid humor and, at times, shocking depictions of a radically “different,” “marginalized,” and “non-normative” protagonist linger in the viewer’s mind long after experiencing the film.

Zoology opens with the protagonist Natasha (played by Natal’ia Pavlenkova making her third appearance in a Tverdovskii film) standing in front of a large glass window, with her back to the camera, as she overlooks the sea (parts of the film were shot in Crimea). The framing composition of this opening sequence immediately suggests Natasha’s entrapment within her environment—perhaps similar to that of the animals at the zoo where she works—without any hope for escape. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that this docile spinster-protagonist is indeed “imprisoned” in her drab quotidian existence. She is a pencil-pushing zoo administrator, regularly taunted by a clique of hostile female co-workers, whose petty (and, one might add, age-inappropriate) antics range from openly mocking the protagonist’s supposed virginity to planting a mischief of live mice in Natasha’s desk drawer. Natasha’s domestic space, a dismal den of alienation and isolation, is equally suffocating. She inhabits a creaky, claustrophobic apartment with her superstitious mother and an aging feline named Barsik who, not unlike his owner, is devoid of any agency and never even appears on the screen. We do periodically hear Barsik’s meowing in the background and, after his demise, we see a box adorned with four carnations, presumably containing the cat’s remains, which Natasha semi-ceremoniously deposits into the communal garbage chute. One could interpret the cat’s inelegant “burial” as a foreshadowing of Natasha’s hopeless and desperate future or as a plausible end to her own sad existence.

zoologiaWhile the depiction of Natasha’s depressing, decaying and, at times, hostile home and work environments shares narrative tropes with Russian chernukha cinema of the 1990s, the film quickly takes on a fantastic twist reminiscent of a Nikolai Gogol tale: Natasha abruptly and for no apparent reason grows a very long and fleshy tail. The tail is introduced into the story rather nonchalantly and—apart from the very appearance of the appendage—nothing else unrealistic or supernatural happens in the film after the tail enters the picture. In fact, the tail’s strangeness becomes overshadowed by a range of realistic, albeit taboo-breaking details, such as a provocative bathtub scene in which the tail facilitates an intense episode of autoeroticism. Further weaving the fantastic into the realism of present-day Russia, Natasha takes a trip to the local clinic in hopes of finding an explanation (and perhaps even a solution) for the mysterious thing extending from her back.

zoologiaNatasha’s flesh-colored animatronic tail is rather thick and long, falling almost to her knees. Given the size of the member in question, it is particularly poignant that none of the local clinic’s indifferent doctors pay sufficient attention to Natasha to even notice their patient’s obvious medical “anomaly.” In a scathing commentary on the impersonality of today’s Russian healthcare, the doctors neither see nor listen to Natasha. Instead, they keep sending her for one X-ray after another without ever actually examining her “growth” or seriously analyzing the radiology results. (It would appear that in this town’s clinic, the X-ray machine is a panacea for all ills: when Natasha’s mother is rushed to the hospital with high blood pressure, the doctor—again completely disregarding an ailing patient—insists that the woman get an X-ray, despite Natasha’s protests that what her mother really needs is an ECG).

While the clinic’s overtaxed X-ray machine serves as a target of the director’s satire, it is Natasha’s encounter with the young and handsome radiologist Petia (Dmitrii Groshev) that initiates the film’s main plotline. Despite their notable age difference (Natasha appears to be old enough to be Petia’s mother), there is an almost immediate chemistry between the pair in what initially seems to be a budding “euphorically-optimistic” and formulaic romance (Sirivlia). We see scenes of the duo kissing and clubbing; several of their trysts take place against spectacular (and remarkably framed) Crimean vistas. Other scenes offer comic relief, such as an episode where Natasha’s mother interrupts the couple or another scene where the duo surreptitiously drinks wine and giggles during a group therapy session. Natasha, who appears to be in love, even undergoes the classic “ugly duckling” transformation (which evokes disparaging remarks from her spiteful coworkers): her gray hair gives way to a brunette pixie cut, she also shortens her skirts, and acquires a shiny sequined dress. Tverdovskii’s choice of soundtrack further highlights the juxtaposition between Natasha’s earlier drab existence (set to melancholic pieces from Petr Tchaikovsky’s “Children’s Album”) and her liberating escapades with Petia (accompanied by songs by the 1990s Russian pop idol, Alena Sviridova). Most importantly, while the small seaside town is consumed with gossip about a tailed female “monster,” in Petia’s company Natasha can be herself and “let her tail down” (although in one scene at a club the tail becomes accidentally untucked from under Natasha’s skirt, provoking panic among the unsuspecting patrons).

zoologiaPetia’s ostensible embrace and even “normalization” of Natasha’s radical “otherness” and his matter-of-fact attitude towards it is, however, short-lived. In the film’s most potent and uncomfortable scene we see Petia and Natasha during an intimate encounter in an empty cage at the zoo. As the camera offers the viewer abundant close-ups, Petia finally expresses the true object of his desire: it is not Natasha the woman, but the tail in itself. As Natasha glances back at her suitor with discomfort and disappointment, she suddenly loses all interest in the young man. One could perhaps interpret this grotesque scene as a peculiar role and gaze reversal: in Natasha’s eyes, Petia, with his clear enthusiasm for her “monster” tail, has become the repulsive “freak,” whom she must reject. Or is Natasha disheartened by the thought that Petia has exploited her all along, led on not by an interest in her, but by a “perverse” fetishistic fascination with her appendage?

The film’s profoundly pessimistic and possibly tragic finale suggests that Natasha, her hopes for love, transformation and acceptance dashed, will be permanently ostracized and marginalized in her small town. She has been fired from the zoo, banned by the local church and shunned by her pious mother. In the film’s final scene, despondent and rejecting her own “difference,” Natasha configures a sort of a mini-guillotine by tying a knife to a kitchen chair and, just before we can witness the tail’s ostensible coup de grâce, the film cuts to the final credits. A complex and provocative parable, Zoology premiered at the 2016 Kinotavr where Pavlenkova won Best Actress award, and the film garnered the Prize of the Guild of Russian Film Critics and Film Scholars.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Natal’ia Sirivlia. 2016. “O pol’ze provokatsii. ‘Zoologiia’, rezhisser Ivan I. Tverdovskii.” Iskusstvo kino 6

 


Zoology, Russia, 2016.
Color, 83 minutes
Director: Ivan Tverdovskii
Script: Ivan Tverdovskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Mikeladze
Production Design: Liubov’ Ivanova, Vasilii Raspopov
Cast: Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Dmitrii Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Zhanna Demikhova, Irina Demidkina, Anna Astashkina, Ol’ga Ergina, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Mariia Tokareva
Producers: Natal’ia Mokritskaia, Mila Rozanova
Production: “Novye liudi” with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Ivan Tverdovskii: Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2017

Updated: 2017