Writer-director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy takes an oddball premise and brings it skilfully down to Earth with this unexpectedly funny yet decidedly human drama.
55-year-old zoo employee Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) one day discovers that she has, without any explanation, grown a tail. It doesn’t take long for word to spread around town that there’s a tailed “Devil woman” in their midst, and so Natasha has to weather being cast out of society while trying to adjust to her “problem” and figure out a potential relationship with her young radiologist suitor, Peter (Dmitriy Groshev).
It’s an inherently absurd concept, for sure, yet one that Tverdovskiy largely plays straight down-the-line. This is, above all else, a story of discrimination and small-town superstition, and when the tail gimmick takes a backseat, a character study of a woman who simply strives to be accepted.
It is a tragicomedy in every sense of the portmanteau, touting flashes of Gilliam-esque dystopia during the numerous glimpses of Natasha’s workplace, a bureaucratic hellhole indeed. But what truly makes Zoology work is its unexpected emotive power; forget the daftness of the set-up and there’s a quietly devastating pull to Nastasha’s desire to achieve the very same thing we all crave – to be embraced by our peers, whoever they might be.
Pavlenkova gives a strong performance in a totally unflattering part, tail and all, capturing a mixture of hope and heartbreaking desolation, which largely commands the movie as Tverdovskiy’s direction is for the most part merely functional and unfussed, though anything else would probably feel wrong.
Zoology certainly doesn’t even begin to outstay its welcome at just 83 minutes in length, and during that time it spins a beguilingly singular, tonally balanced yarn free of bloated excess. Just wait until Hollywood hears about the premise and transmogrifies it into a feel-good summer comedy.
Zoology premieres at the London Film Festival on October 6th