Issue 58 (2017)

Ivan Tverdovskii: Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2017

Zoology, as we learn at school, is a study of animals, and despite the theory of evolution, we are pretty sure of the difference between us and them. But where do the boundaries lie? And what if, one morning, your body undergoes a transformation, not as radical as in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915),but enough to send your neighbors screaming and crossing themselves? Ivan I. Tverdovskii’s film Zoology takes us on a journey of self-exploration, challenging the boundaries, testing our humanity, and making us uncomfortable. Zoology is the director’s second feature film, and it premiered in Russia at the Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, where it received the Award of the Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars, and the Best Actress award (Natal’ia Pavlenkova). The film also got awards and very positive reviews at various international film festivals in Europe and North America. 

Shot in Crimea and set in an unnamed seashore town, Zoology tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Natasha (Natal’ia Pavlenkova). Single and childless, the ageing Natasha lives with her mother and works as a “senior specialist for acquisition of foodstuffs” at a local zoo. The foodstuffs largely consist of shipments of rodents for the terrarium; Natasha’s colleagues also use the rats to play practical jokes on Natasha, laughing like hyenas and stuffing themselves with food. At home Natasha sneaks a smoke in the stairwell, hiding her cigarette stash in the fuse box, so that mom won’t notice—Natasha behaves like a teenager, not a grown woman. At dinner, the mother regurgitates Russian television’s exposés about the horrors of Europe’s spiritual degradation and local gossips about the possessed (besnovataia) woman, who will rob you of your soul. Natasha’s only escape are lonely walks along the seashore and visiting zoo animals. Even if this were all that Tverdovskii’s film is about—a snapshot of the lonely life of a middle-aged woman in contemporary Russia—it would deserve our attention.

But in a perfectly Gogolian twist, a fantastic event derails Natasha’s sad and unremarkable existence: the woman grows a tail. We witness the appendage when Natasha undresses in an X-ray office in front of the radiologist Petia (Dmitrii Groshev), who defies Natasha’s embarrassment and treats her with sympathetic professionalism, before developing an interest in her—or in her freakishness. From this moment on, her one-note, repressed life bifurcates. On the one hand, she seeks help from the doctors, the church, a psychic, and her own mother. None of these offer any help: the doctors (all men) stare blankly at Natasha’s charts and X-rays; the priest denies her communion; and the mother obsessively paints red crosses on the apartment walls to ward off the unclean force, which happens to be her own daughter.

zoologiaUnlike these forays into normalizing institutions, Petia’s sudden interest in Natasha, however ambiguous his attraction is, charts another narrative trajectory, one in which Natasha’s fantastic deformity becomes a source of rule-breaking and delightful anarchy. Once Natasha embraces the tail, she becomes a different being: more confident and outgoing; fun-loving and sexual. “For 55 years she has been living with her mom, who got her ready for school, for work, and one day it would be over—she would bury her mother, and then she would be buried nearby. But through this tail she undergoes some growth, she becomes not quite human” (Tverdovskii 2016). The tail—thick, fleshy, the kind that would make David Cronenberg proud—is an active participant in a number of scenes that are both grotesque and entirely matter-of-fact. Together Natasha and Petia slide in steel basins down a gigantic concrete crater—a debris of a Soviet-era meteorological station (Tverdovskii 2016); fool around and take selfies (with Natasha and her tail playing a cat) in mom’s apartment; dance at a disco bar, with the tail making its dramatic appearance; carnivalize the absurdities of a “Self Help” seminar; and have sex in an empty cage at the zoo (spoiler alert: a fetish is involved).

zoologia The film’s fragmented structure challenges a pre-conceived cause-and-effect logic. The story begins in medias res, and we are never sure at what point Natasha discovers the tail or how the gossip about the “possessed woman” starts. After Natasha gets fired from her job for dressing and behaving inappropriately, her mother suffers a hypertensive crisis and falls. Is her refusal to do an X-ray just a low expectation of the Russian medical system?  Or, as Nancy Condee provocatively suggested at the press conference of Kinotavr, the mother hides a tail of her own? (“Press-konferentsiia”). Likewise, the ending could be read as Natasha’ desperate attempt to become “normal”—but is de facto her suicide. Zoology is indeed “a perfectly orchestrated allegory that subverts all generic and narrative expectations” (Ezerova 2016).

The orchestration, both metaphorical and literal, owes a lot to music. The choice and deployment of musical pieces is thoughtful and meaningful, marking the story’s highs and lows, giving the narrative an emotional structure. Several piano pieces from Petr Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album punctuate Natasha’s lonely travels through the town, reaching a crescendo at the zoo. In addition to their thematic clarity, they underscore—whether intentionally or not—the adolescent nature of interactions among people.

zoologia The only other music in the film is Russian pop, used diegetically in several scenes. Ubiquitous and loud, pop song concerts are a sine qua non element of daily Russian television schedules and media events, especially celebrations of state holidays. It is a drug that dulls the senses and prepares the listeners for the injection of state “news.” Yet in Zoology Tverdovskii subverts our expectations. These scenes are about Natasha coming alive. The two songs are by singer and songwriter Alena Sviridova and are both from the 1990s—a significant statement about Russia’s sterile present. “The Pink Flamingo” (1994) and “It Will Always Be Like This” (1997) are of course about love, but also about becoming yourself and being there for another person. In a stunning transformation, the not-quite-human Natasha dances to “The Pink Flamingo” in front of a mirror, sporting a new haircut, black stockings and a black teddy—with a cutout for the tail. Likewise, at the disco dance the lyrics “I will come to your help, I am with you till your last breath,” repeated again and again, with Natasha gradually losing her fear, sound like a prayer in the hostile world.

The film stages its transgressive gags with zest and taste, while commenting all along on the community’s arrested development. It is hard not to read Zoology as a social commentary on Russia’s anti-gay laws and the growing societal intolerance towards any form of otherness and dissent. Yet to Tverdovskii’s credit, the film delicately bridges a personal statement and social diagnosis. The pseudo-documentary cinematography and the everyday drab settings work surprisingly well with the fantastic subject. As Anton Dolin notes, despite its universal themes and international appeal, “Zoology is a distinctly [Russian] national work. It proves once more the undeniable fact, ignored somehow by the majority of our filmmakers: thе strictest [form] of Russian realism is surrealism” (Dolin 2016).

Elena Prokhorova
College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2016. “’Zoologiia’ Ivana Tverdovskogo: v mire zhivotnykh.”  Afisha Daily 24 November.

Ezerova, Daria. 2016.  “The Cinematic Discomfort of Kinotavr 2016.”  KinoKultura 53. 

Press-konferentsiia konkursnogo fil’ma "Zoologiia".”

Tverdovskii, Ivan [interview]. 2016. “Rezhisser Ivan Tverdovskii o ‘Zoologii,’ khvoste i mrachnykh finalakh.” Afisha Daily 29 November. 

Zoology, Russia / France / Germany, 2016
Color, 88 min
Director: Ivan Tverdovskii
Screenplay: Ivan Tverdovskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Mikeladze
Music: Iurii Poteenko, Aleksei HarDrum
Cast: Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Dmitrii Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Zhanna Demikhova, Irina Demidkina, Anna Astashkina, Ol’ga Ergina, Aleksandr Nekhoroshikh
Producer: Natal’ia Mokritskaia
Production: New People Film, Arizona Productions, MovieBrats Pictures

Ivan Tverdovskii: Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2017

Updated: 2017 07 Oct 17