Fantastic Fest: “Zoology” inspires disgust, ends poorly

Charles Liu

Life is supposed to give people lemons. Instead, it gives Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) a tail.

Such is the story of the Russian film “Zoology,” a bizarre and sometimes inexplicable fantasy story that explores loneliness and independence but fizzles out before it can reach a poignant conclusion.

But when it comes to a strong beginning, “Zoology” has that down pat. The introduction of the film attracts attention mainly because of how grotesque the tail looks, inspiring us to feel the dread and fear the middle-aged Natasha does. The appendage moves about and twitches with a mind of its own, transforming her from an ugly duckling into a walking freak show. Already an outcast among her colleagues at the zoo and afraid of what her superstitious mother would think of her, Natasha conceals the tail beneath baggy skirts.

A visit to the hospital for an X-ray brings Natasha into the company of a young doctor named Peter (Dimitri Groshev). Peter quickly grows to like Natasha, taking her out on dates and making her feel special. Natasha responds positively and undergoes a makeover that leaves her more confident in herself.

Natasha is an instantly sympathetic character with her unrefined habits and yearning for a better life. Well-chosen for the role, Pavlenkova honestly captures her evolution into a stronger, more-surefooted woman. She’s rarely showy, and suitably so, for someone like Natasha would be afraid to reveal her vulnerabilities to others.

“Zoology” devotes a lot of time to Natasha and Peter’s relationship and its pitfalls — she can’t believe he loves her, and he is unable to convince her otherwise. Nonetheless, a lighthearted sweetness defines most of their interactions, and we forget about how disgusting the tail is when Peter does.

Director Ivan I. Tverdovsky never explains where the tail came from. It primarily serves as a symbol of Natasha’s uniqueness, but it also has some phallic qualities which have less obvious meaning. The tail serves as a dildo for Natasha during a bath, as well as a funny, nearly homoerotic object of desire for Peter during a sex scene. There is a lot of meaning to glean from the tail, even when the movie stumbles.

In its closing act, “Zoology” abandons its optimism when Natasha decides she is not strong enough to accept herself for who she is. Once this happens, the movie drifts off into anticlimax, and whatever message the filmmakers were driving at gets muddled by the sudden and unsatisfying ending.

Running Time: 87 minutes
Rating: NR
Score: 2.5/5 stars