Director: Ivan I. Tverdovsky
Stars: Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitry Groshev, Irina Chipozhenko
In Agnieszka Smoczynska’s 2015 fable The Lure (reviewed on here just a couple of weeks ago), the growing of a mighty fishtail was a potent symbol for sexual development in its focal young women. One might therefore assume that the appearance (again from Eastern Europe) of a new film in which a middle-aged woman lives with the burden of a long protruding tail, might symbolise change at the other end of the spectrum. In both films a sense of transition is evoked, but speculation that Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s sophomore feature Zoology is therefore about menopause doesn’t quite fit on viewing.
It’s star is Natalya Pavlenkova as Natasha. Natasha works in admin at a zoo, has no friends and is mocked by her colleagues for her appearance and presumed virginity. She lives in a sad flat with her mother, and the two of them dress similarly. She is the kind of woman cinema rarely affords serious consideration. A recent expansion box for Cards Against Humanity even acknowledged this universal blind spot by featuring a “roles for women over forty” card. The problem has become this conspicuous. Tverdovsky’s film grabs attention with its unusual premise, but the tail grown by Natasha is largely a Barnum-style lure to get you into the tent.
Natasha visits the doctor about her unusual growth – which is hairless, like a rat’s tail – and this brings her into proximity with Petya (Dmitry Groshev) who operates the x-ray machine. Unlike others, he is completely unphased by the appearance of Natasha’s tail when she disrobes, and this nonchalant acceptance proves the beginning of a tentative romance between the two.
Having a tail might prove galling to the general public – where the parentheses of what is and isn’t attractive are so rigidly set – but just as shocking is the idea of a young man around the age of 30 having romantic and sexual desires for a woman cresting 50. This, it transpires, is the real taboo that Tverdovsky’s film intends to shed a spotlight on. It’s an engrained hypocrisy of course. Look at any Hollywood film in which the leading man is around the age of 50 (recent Tom Cruise vehicles, for example) and you’ll find a youthful love interest tethered to his arm. Age gaps of this nature are so familiar and engrained into biased movie-going tradition as to often appear without comment.
But perform a gender switch and suddenly you’re presented with something that society doesn’t quite know how to respond to. Natasha appears shameful of her feelings for Petya. This could be attributed to her mother’s God-fearing worldview, but it also feels like the by-product of a lifetime of social conditioning. Petya, quite wonderfully, has no hang-ups about it whatsoever. But Zoology is about its central woman, and how she has been shaped by the world around her.
As such the growth of her tail doesn’t appear to represent her transition into mid-life so much as a sort of rebirth. Thanks to her interactions with Petya, Natasha becomes youthful again. She has her hair cut and dyed. She takes shears to the hem lines of her skirts. And the activities they do together are pointedly youthful; going to a disco or, in one of the film’s most charming scenes, simply at play, sledding down a slope in old basins after a coastal picnic. The tail is her romantic spirit externalised, perhaps even her inner child.
There’s a thorn in that theory, however, in that she doesn’t meet Petya until after the tail appears, but pursuing this chicken and egg conundrum leads nowhere (and, in fairness, for all we know she’s had this appendage her whole life; there is never a point where we know she doesn’t have it). Still, the orthodoxy of her upbringing has the very real ability to curtail her happiness as Tverdovsky transitions into the film’s final act.
The film turns minor tragedy as it acknowledges, wearily, that acceptance (from within and without) isn’t so easy to come by, and it laments that progress in this regard is an ongoing concern. One would imagine that this is particularly the case in Tverdovsky’s native Russia. Zoology dances, fleetingly, with imagery that suggests Petya may be bisexual which, given some persistent international headlines about the county’s stance on anything vaguely homosexual, reads as a little daring. The fallout of this moment is as telling of societal trends as it is of Natasha’s own personal hang-ups about her body and place in the world.
Pavlenkova is exceptional in the lead, taking the opportunity in both hands and crafting something of depth and dimension with it. One gets the sense that a role like this in film is a rare treat, and worth savouring. Tverdovsky, like Petya, is a young man with a promising future ahead of him. One hopes that more young filmmakers recognise the potential for stories outside of their own age-bracket. Zoology is evidence that it can be done with charm and sensitivity. Playful and sad like some of the better Michel Gondry pictures, but with a voice all of it’s own, this is a curio to look out for.