Natasha is a lonely woman. Painfully shy and awkward, she lives with her mother, never drinks, doesn’t date and quietly puts up with constant abuse from her co-workers. The only private joy she allows herself is a daily cigarette when she takes out the trash. She’s too old for a second act to save her from her doldrums and she’s long resigned to this fate.
And then one day, for reasons the film has no interest in explaining, she grows a tail. It’s a long, girthy thing, stiff and capable of limited but clumsy movements. If you think what I’m describing sounds like a penis, you and this film are on the same page.
Zoology sets itself up as a film where this bizarre development kickstarts a journey of self-discovery in which a doorstep wallflower of a person learns to flourish on the wild side and make right everything that was previously wrong with her life. It’s not. The tail doesn’t exactly give her new confidence so much as force her into situations she would not have experienced otherwise. What she does with them and where they lead her has nothing to do with opening doors to some new life. She does try, but man, the negative reinforcement with which her mild attempts are met win every time, without hardly any effort.
So what we have is a layer of whimsical joy placed upon a body of misery. Through Natasha’s entire journey, the film presents the potential for satisfaction only to crash it down to Earth at every turn. Once it becomes clear we’re not building to any substantial development thanks to this tail, Zoology emotional dynamic narrows.
But there is a power to the film, even if it only serves to beat you down. People in Zoology are shit. All of them. Natasha has long been defeated by it before the film begins, and why wouldn’t she be? She’s old, meek, not traditionally attractive and without any allies, even her mother has little to offer but zealous tirades on the corrupting powers of progression. In such a context, Natasha’s minuscule victories are massive, but it’s also no wonder they are snatched from her immediately.
Much of this power comes from director Ivan I. Tverdovski’s low key direction, which fills the frame with little activity but tons of details, missing very few opportunities to make Natasha’s world casually filthy and awful. One gets the feeling that a long trip far out of town would be much more useful to her than a tail.
And then there’s Natalya Pavlenkova as Natasha, a performance that constantly has to show a wide array of emotions within a remarkably narrow range of reactions. Even when Natasha cuts lose, we see she’s held back by her inexperience with doing so. Furthermore, the actress’ features and age present a constant, heartbreaking confirmation that this story will never go exactly where we want it to go. In storytelling terms, which are sometimes horrifically shallow, she is too old and entrenched to emerge with a typical Cinderella ending.
Zoology concludes abruptly, putting a sudden end to a story that still feels unfinished. Until its last moments, there remains hope that Natasha will rise above her setting and demand the happier life that eludes her. But tail or no tail, it turns out that was never in the cards. It’s a good film, but you’re not going to walk out of it whistling a show tune. It might even take you a minute to remember something as wonderful as music even exists.