Zoology

Zoology
[Зоология]

Russia, 2016
Color, 88 minutes
Russian, English subtitles
Director: Ivan I. Tverdovskii
Screenplay: Ivan I. Tverdovskii
Camera: Aleksandr Mikeladze
Cast: Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Dmitrii Groshev
Production: New People Film, Arizona Productions, MovieBrats Pictures
Awards: The White Elephant and Kinotavr awards for Best Actress;
Special Jury Prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; Best
Film and Best Actress at FilmFestival Cottbus

Ivan Tverdovskii’s second full-length film Zoology is often referred
to by critics as a continuation of his debut Correction Class, which
received a prize in Karlovy Vary in 2014. Despite narrating two very
different stories— Correction Class is a variation on the school film,
the genre whose main conventions were formed in the Soviet period,
while Zoology can be described as a fantastic drama—the two films,
indeed, have one important trait in common.  Both films reflect on the
theme of norm and deviation, and can be perceived as stories of
(incomplete) maturation.

Shot in Crimea, Zoology tells a story of a middle-aged woman in her
50s, Natasha, who still lives with her domineering mother, has no
friends or career, and is mocked by her gossipy colleagues who believe
that she is incapable of attracting men.  Still, in a sudden and
largely unexplained turn of events, Natasha grows an animalistic tail
which she initially hides under her long spinsterish skirts.  The tail
strangely resembles a penis and at times even serves Natasha as a
masturbation tool.  However, in addition to provoking direct
associations with a physical organ, it also fulfills the function of
being a symbolic phallus in Natasha’s life: after attaining the tail
she develops a more assertive psychology, which is strikingly
different from her former shy self.

Despite the fact that Natasha is presented as having a formally mature
personality, her depiction in the film is very similar to that of the
teenagers in Correction Class.  The director himself confirms that
Natasha was conceived of as having the psychology of a 14-year-old:
she is strangely naïve and vulnerable to the aggression of her
colleagues, which largely resembles bullying in high school.  In both
films the director explores the theme of the “white crow,” the
oddball, who suffers ostracism from the collective.  This theme has a
lengthy legacy in the Soviet school film genre.  It seems to have
particular significance for Tverdovskii as well: apart from recycling
this old trope in his Correction Class, he instills it with a new
meanings in Zoology, where it serves as a reflection on the current
state of Russian society.

Growing a tail in the story is followed by another important event in
Natasha’s life: she begins to date a much younger man, an attractive
X-ray technician Petia, who seems to be tolerant of Natasha’s
abnormality, which he even enjoys.  Moreover, it is in the scene of
Natasha’s first encounter with Petia that the spectator has a chance
to see the tail for the first time: it is revealed when Petia is
taking an X-ray of it.  The revelation of the tail in the film has an
effect of a cinematic attraction: produced with the help of newest
video technologies it looks strikingly realistic.  In the scene, Petia
also sees the tail for the first time, yet he is seemingly unimpressed
with the sighting and deals with it professionally; he only asks
Natasha to hold the tail with her hand so it does not wag and disrupt
the procedure.

While the beginning of the film has a distinctly realistic, even
documentary quality to it, which is achieved through the use of a
hand-held camera, the scene in Petia’s office with the Cronenbergian
sighting of the tail immediately transports the viewer into the
dimension of the fantastic.  However, Petia’s reserved reaction to the
tail and his everyday dealings with it, create the impression that the
tail acts as a certain metaphor in the film rather than a piece of
actuality.  This metaphor seems to intensify as the film progresses,
attaining more and more nuances and dramatic complexity.

In various interviews Ivan Tverdovskii stresses that with the help of
his films he tries to promote certain civic values.  His earlier
projects, mostly documentaries, address various social problems,
including those of disabled teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In this respect, both Correction Class and Zoology also serve to
promote certain causes with modernizing and westernizing agendas.
Natasha’s tail in Zoology clearly reflects on certain narratives of
resistance currently present in Russian society, namely the resistance
to the forms of religious and political fundamentalism gaining
momentum in Russia.

The oddball Natasha, to whom the tail gives courage to take action,
expresses herself and is different from her colleagues and society in
general.  She is portrayed in a state of constant mental opposition:
to her mother who equally believes Orthodox priests and the wildest TV
shows about exorcism; to the esoteric practices of self-help, which
potentially attracts “losers” like Natasha; to the abusive mindset of
her colleagues.  In her resistance she is supported only by Petia, who
admires her abnormality in a somewhat homosexual fashion: in an
episode showing the couple engaging in a sexual act in the zoo, Petia
kisses Natasha’s tail in a suggestive manner.  Both Natasha and her
boyfriend become a representation of “abnormality,” which current
Russian society rejects, including non-traditional forms of sexuality
and western rationality, which are effectively considered the marks of
the devil, just like Natasha’s tail.

As her romance with Petia goes deeper, Natasha also constantly
questions her newly found freedom, gradually losing it to the society
that demands compliance with the norm.  After she gets fired from her
job at the zoo, which in itself serves as an amusing metaphor alluding
to the state of Russian society, and, most importantly, after her
mother rejects her upon learning about the tail, Natasha decides to
get rid of her new organ.  In the final scene she sits down on a sharp
blade which effectively rids her of her newfound freedom and so
short-lived agency.

Zhanna Budenkova

Ivan I. Tverdovskii was born in 1988 into the family of a documentary filmmaker Ivan Tverdovskii. He graduated from Aleksei Uchitel’s class at the State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) in 2011..

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