Saturday 30 September 2017

Tall tail: "Zoology"

Zoology turns out to be one of those films from the "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" subgenre, so named for the Crash Test Dummies song that detailed a series of unexpected and inexplicable events, but it starts off firmly within the realms of common-or-garden character study. Under observation is Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a somewhat downtrodden, middle-aged procurement manager at a zoo on the Russian coast; there, she falls prone to collapsing fits and the mocking taunts of colleagues who see her first and foremost as a loveless spinster. (She does, in fact, live with her ageing mother, and an ailing cat.) The camera follows her through several of the kind of sparsely functional doctors' surgeries that have recurred in recent Eastern European arthouse cinema, and it's only when our heroine undresses for an X-ray that the full extent of her medical problem becomes clear. Let me put it this way: did you hear the one about the woman who grew a tail from her lower back?

Writer-director Ivan Tverdovskiy offers no reason for this development, save perhaps the suggestion that Natasha is capable of an empathy that the snide, appearance-fixated gossips around her simply aren't, and that she may have taken on animal characteristics as she senses more than most what it's like to live in a jungle. Initially, the tail is a novelty (here's a woman who can make herself look like a cat without recourse to those semi-baffling Snapchat filters) and a source of embarrassment comedy ("Could you hold it so it doesn't wiggle?," asks one doctor), yet increasingly it's as much cause for distress as any other growth, placing Natasha at the mercy of both the system and the kindness and tolerance of strangers. When she's dismissed from her local church for her resemblance to the Antichrist, tail hanging limply between her legs, the seriousness of her situation becomes clear: she's now even more of an outcast in a deeply superstitious superstate where even those waiting in line for medical treatment are prone to treating urban legend as gospel truth.

Zoology can seem simplistic and picture-booky: Natasha's cackling colleagues, hiding her calculator in a desk drawer filled with mice, are no more than hybrids of wicked stepsisters and Gareth from The Office. (Furthering the warped fairytale vibe: a potential Prince Charming in a young doctor who treats his patient with consummate diligence, although - in a film offering cold comfort - it should be no surprise he's only into her for one reason.) Like the tail, the tale develops erratically, with longish scenes that don't really add much to our understanding of the heroine's plight, a risky strategy in an 87-minute feature. The results can feel more like the basis of a quirky ad campaign, or a short that's grown out of hand, than any truly serious consideration of Putinland's humanitarian failings. Still, it's unarguably different, and thus merits at the very least a measure of bemused engagement: not averse to scanning a zoo's internal-ops meetings to see what they might reveal about human nature, a fable about a woman who grows a pendulous prosthetic appendage that unfolds in the same loveless Russia, the same cruel world, as the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Zoology is now showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on Oct 30.  

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