Our critic April Wolfe is filing updates all week from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Writer-director Ivan I. Tverdovsky may be a 20-something male, but in his sophomore feature, he exhibits a direct pipeline into the psyche of a lonely, middle-aged woman. In Zoology, a lowly zoo worker suddenly sprouts a catlike tail, an occurrence that immediately rearranges the woman’s acetic, virginal life, launching her on a brazen quest to find herself. Unfortunately, she lives in the bureaucratic funhouse of postcommunist Russia, which is not so keen on individuality and feminine risk-taking. That combination of fairy-tale wonderment and stark realism propels this enthralling film, which showcases serious acting talent in its lead spot with relative newcomer Natalya Pavlenkova.
Tverdovsky’s first feature, Corrections Class (2014), was a school romp that turned quickly to brutal, searing drama as it followed a disabled teenager learning firsthand the cruelty of her outcast classmates. That film is woefully difficult to find — on streaming services and in video stores — but in it, Pavlenkova delivers a sensitive performance as a single mother, culminating in an epic emotional breakdown. As the lead in Zoology, she does all that and more.
Her Natasha listens dutifully as the old crones gossip about a “possessed” women who’s grown a tail like a devil and will suck out a person’s soul if you look her in the eye — pure fantasy. At first, she’s apprehensive, nervous, her eyes darting back and forth as the rumors get more outlandish. But as she finds herself in the bland, barren, sickly blue hallways of the hospital, visiting charming young X-ray technician Peter (Dmitriy Groshev) over and over again, upon doctor’s orders — the gossip getting ever more cruel — she breaks down. It’s time for her to embrace the tail.
As a writer, Tverdovsky has made an art form out of yelling matches. The zoo’s executive team talks over one another, spouting off rules and regulations that must be followed, and the second Natasha attempts to utter a word, she’s shouted over with inanities about what's proper for an older spinster with an ailing mother to wear to work. These scenes are at once infuriating and hilarious. The homely Natasha winces sweetly as she’s chided at work, but in her own bedroom, where she can unravel her tail from her panties and dance like a cat to frenetic Russian club music, she’s a gorgeous, sexual woman.
Just as with Corrections Class, Tverdovsky uses sleight of hand with a single, multilayered scene of emotional disconnect to signal a reversal of the protagonist’s newfound fortunes. This turns a story of discovery into one of distress. Every twist and turn of this magical film is unexpected but inevitable, and Pavlenkova is exactly the right actress to embody this compelling, singular character.