Consider the logistics that would be involved if a human had to deal with having a lengthy, rat-like tail. It would be a challenge, but, like with everything else, we'd find ways of adapting to them if it were a universal concern, from fancy tail socks to specially-tailored pants that'd conceal ‘em altogether. This is a world where the strange and unusual typically gets ostracized, though, and since such appendages aren't ever seen on humans, the spotting of one would naturally cause others to react; at best, with curiosity, and at worst, with horror. The premise of Zoology swings on the occurrence of a tail growing from a middle-aged woman who works at a zoo, how she copes with both this biological oddity and the gossip, sideways glances, and outright distress if the knowledge became public. Themes of embracing one's differences and weathering social exclusion extend throughout Ivan Tverdovskiy's sophomore feature, but its unyielding cynicism and storytelling oddities leave its potential caged up.
Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) works in accounting and food procurements at a zoo near a coastal city, where she still lives with her elderly mother. She lives a saddened and reclusive life with little to no friendly interaction, which reflects upon her dowdy appearance. Health concerns begin to creep in on her as well, eventually sending her to the doctor for examinations. Soon after, Zoology reveals something bizarre about Natasha that had been concealed beforehand: she has a tail, and not just a small pig-like curl protruding from the area, but a lengthy and relatively grotesque addition that seems to have a mind of its own at times. Ashamed, Natasha conceals her tail and attempts to go about her life, but her doctor's visits expectedly complicate matters. Soon, murmurs of a woman wearing a tail begin to circulate in her small town, leading to supernatural speculation. Natasha, confronted with these changes, decides to embrace a devil-may-care attitude and overhaul her manner of living.
Despite the magical elements of the premise behind a human growing a tail, there's nothing whimsical about the approach to the situation in Zoology. Candid, sobering cinematography with slight realistic shakiness aims to play Natasha's tail growth and health concerns as straight as humanly possible, with this visual language adding austerity to scenes where she eavesdrops on hearsay while waiting at the doctor and where she attempts to continue functioning at her already depressing job. The morbidity and heavy dramatic tone taken on by her situation might remind one of David Cronenberg's horror oddities, but Ivan Tverdovskiy's focus stays much more grounded in his depiction of Natasha's struggles, in hopes of relaying more significant themes with the film's progression. Obviously, this isn't in the spectrum of, say, Penelope, in which a magic spell curses a girl with the snout of a pig. Both may involve biological curses, social themes, and romantic endeavors, but Zoology isn't in the business of fairytales.
By concentrating on a practical and modern depiction instead of a fanciful one, Ivan Tverdovskiy also exposes Zoology to the concerns of how realistic the situation might look to those on the outside looking in, especially once medical professionals enter the equation. Natasha's condition -- the appearance of a woman with a tail -- becomes the subject of under-the-breath discussions around her coastal city, which cleverly ties into thematic components involving folklore and/or religion. What's troubling is the apparent lack of an occasion for the community to have seen the zoo employee sporting her tail, beyond the necessities of divulging it to her doctors. Lacking exposition, the audience must instead make their own assumptions of where the gossiping originated, let alone the reasons why physical abnormalities in Natasha's pain region, her lower back, wouldn't be more openly examined and discussed among her doctors. While smart and thoughtful in concept, certain things in the premise go overlooked.
Actress Natalya Pavlenkova deserves praise for her bravery in embodying the solemn and secretive presence of Natasha, supporting much of Zoology's credibility on her back through her willingness to engage in revealing scenes that entwine with the oddities of her appendage. The progression of her mindset and her desire to cut loose after dealing with her secret and her social problems builds into compelling, downhearted outbursts, dependent on the intimate relationship she builds with her younger radiologist (Dmitriy Groshev) and how his perception of her changes how she handles herself. Ivan Tverdovskiy takes those ideas too far into cynical and morose territory, though, blurring the line between thematic complexity and clarity with how it portrays Natasha's budding independence and deification of her tail. That one can take the content of Zoology so seriously as a dramatic endeavor is a testament to the craftsmanship of the director, even though the conclusion's ambiguity doesn't cut as deeply as it should.
Video and Audio:
The cold, stark realism of Zoology was shot digitally along a coastal region in Russia, populated with slate blues and grays that impact the mood of the entire film. Arrow Video, always diligent in accurately and appropriately presenting both classic and contemporary films, showcase the digitally-shot cinematography in a strong 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer, which might have more intricacy and visual interest than one might imagine out of such a film with a realistic bend. Ivan Tverdovskiy gets up very close and personal with all his actors, especially Natalya Pavlenkova, which draws attention to facial wrinkles, strands of hair, and the weaves of clothing textiles, all of which exhibit effortlessly stable clarity. The palette does lean colder, but that doesn't detract from the pastel strengths and skin-tone warmth lying within, which are rich yet controlled against the photography's intentions … and bolder shades, like a teal coffee cup, the brownish-tans of the fur of a lion, and bright red-orange crosses, are quite vivid. Contrast leans lighter, but black levels in lingerie and in the shadows of a zoo at night tend to be deep and nimble in terms of details within. Zoology looks phenomenal.
There's very little to the Russian 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track beyond the audibility of dialogue, not even much in the way of surround atmosphere, but the clarity of what's there creates a delightfully quiet aural treatment with little twitches of HD niceties here and there. All conversations find a comfortable home in the center and front channels, shifting between them for natural sound dimensionality, with very periodic and mild usage of the lower-frequency channel for a bass boost. A handful of very subtle sound effects effects -- the sizzle of food in a pan, the rattle of a chain-linked fence, the flash of an x-ray machine's imaging -- are pronounced and responsive to the surround stage. Only a few truly abrasive elements arrive later in the story, from ransacked rooms to a few elevated yells, and Arrow's track handles the fluctuations with steadiness and no distortion. Predictably strong subtitles are available in English, while a 2.0 Russian PCM track is also available.
Only two extras have been included with Zoology, but they'll satisfy the curious after a screening. The first is An Appointment With the Doctor (12:33, 16x9 HD), an interview with actor Dmitriy Groshev who plays the radiologist in the film, in which he discusses the youth and documentarian pursuits of Tverdovskiy, the director's special connection with Natalya Pavlenkova, and the difference in perception between critics and audiences. The other is a video essay/interview entitled The Tail of Zoology (28:00, 16x9 HD), by Peter Hames. The rhythm of the essay remains gradual throughout, starting with an analysis of Tverdovskiy's career and moving into general observations about the film's content and motifs. It's around the halfway mark that his insights grow more analytical and intriguing, and while it takes some time and patience with simple plot/idea emphasis to get there, it's worth the wait. There's also a Trailer (1:45, 16x9 HD).
Zoology establishes a bluntly realistic environment around a middle-aged zoo worker, depicting her unsatisfying and isolated life, then turns it on its head with a fantastical development once she grows a tail. The ability for young and promising Russian auteur Ivan Tverdovskiy to craft such a pragmatic attitude around this premise is wildly commendable, as well as the intimate performances he's able to generate from his cast, notable his lead Natalya Pavlenkova. Themes of individuality and social identity run parallel to the upfront telling of Zoology, but the meanings get twisted within the director's pessimistic intentions and crossing of reality and whimsy, weakening its potency with narrative gaps and oddities along the way. It's an intriguing but messy piece of work, and should certainly be pursuit for a Rental, especially Arrow Video's sturdy Blu-ray package.