London Film Festival 2016: ZOOLOGY

The tagline for this Russian-set film is 'It's never too late to grow a tail'. I think 'The tale of tails' would also work (and tip the hat to a great Russian film, The Tale of Tales), as would this homage to Sam Cooke: 'Don't know much about zoology' (well if Theresa May can quote him, hollowly, why can't I?)

Here's the synopsis for Zoology (Russia, France, Germany, 2016, dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskiy) from the London Film Festival site:

Middle-aged Natasha, who shares her life with her mother and an aged cat, works as a procurement officer in a zoo, where she is the butt of her colleagues’ jokes. However, there is something mysterious about her and we soon discover that, unknown to them, Natasha has grown a tail. She goes to the doctor and has X-rays taken at the hospital, but her condition is considered inoperable. She then begins a romance with Peter, a young radiologist and, at the age of 55, new life experiences begin to open up.

Like Wild (which seems to have accidentally set the tone for all the films I've been watching) this is another film about a woman's proximity to a wild animal (or animals). Poor, dowdy, put-upon Natasha is actually executive procurement manager at a small zoo by the sea (or by a lake: I'm not sure where the film was shot), a job which involves buying mice for the pythons to eat and assorted other vitals for the caged creatures.

She is continually mocked and tormented by her lazy, less prepossessing colleagues, whose office pranks (yes, another nightmare office setting, as in Wild) go as far as filling Natasha's desk with hundreds of live mice. There is a stunning lack of respect for animals at this zoo, which is disturbing and faintly comical.

In the evenings, Natasha eats plain meals with her elderly mother in a drab apartment. Her mother is much agitated by a newspaper story she's read about a European woman who's been having sex with an ape. Natasha has her own worries, principally the long, hairless, pink, bony tail she has growing from her coccyx. She undergoes a series of tedious, inconclusive X-rays, while rumours of a devil-woman with a tail spread around her fearful, superstitious, community. 

Natasha is in quite a predicament, poised at the beginning of some kind of potential 'body horror' plot or about to pay the price for daring to be different. But something else happens. Natasha is rather revitalized by her uncanny new appendage and embarks on a passionate affair with the kind young radiologist who is helping to treat her. She gets a new haircut, which takes decades off her, dresses fashionably, goes out dancing, plays childish outdoor games with young Peter and generally lets her tail down.

Sat in the cinema, I was wondering how I might delicately describe Natasha's physical transformation without sounding unkind or inappropriately judgemental. The best thing is to keep it within cinematic frames of reference, I think: in one scene at the hairdresser's, she goes from having 'Mrs Bates hair' to having a flashy new bob that might suit Anna Karina. It's a rather joyous transition, especially given the hairdresser's initial sense of hopelessness.

The whole, ahem, tale is handled with a certain matter-of-factness that's reminiscent of Gogol and there is one breathtaking scene early on where Natasha communes with the various sad-sack animals in the zoo. She clearly adores them, complimenting each of them on their individual beauty, and there is a strong feeling of empathy for their spirit and their otherness. The scene reminded me strongly of Jacques Tourneur's timeless Cat People (1942) and Natasha is a distant cinematic cousin of the intoxicating Serb, Irena. 

The look and feel of Zoology recalls the first Dogme films and also Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar: everyone is a little too close to the camera, the framing is disorderly or cramped, the sound is much too intimate. This style pays huge dividends during a crucial sex scene which takes a startling, disappointing, rather crest-falling turn. I haven't witnessed such an uncomfortable and courageous sex scene since Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa earlier this year. 

Talking of discomfort, during the last few minutes of the film, peering through my fingers, I saw most of the audience cringing along with me as the superbly shot and timed conclusion seemed to be approaching. Quite masterful, the control here. 

I thought the film was a gem and I wonder if it will get decent distribution; it's certainly been picking up prizes at various festivals. Natalya Pavlenkova is quite brilliant as Natasha and brings many dimensions to a role that might otherwise have remained an unbreathing metaphor. Searching for the film on, I noticed that typing 'Zool' into the search box brings up only Zoolander, Zoolander 2, and Zoolander: Super Model for companions. The strange company that words, films, people, and animals keep.

There's a sterner view of the film over at Variety.

Next up: Dearest Sister.