How can a lonely woman break out of a decades-long devolution into dowdiness and invisibility? Thereby hangs a tail in Russian director Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s second feature after his well-received “Corrections Class” in 2014. Following a downtrodden office worker who has inexplicably sprouted a long, fleshy tail and who experiences a brief Indian summer when she finds love and acceptance in the arms of a younger man, “Zoology,” however, is a bit of a muddle of metaphor and meaning. The overtly fable-like structure of the story compels us to search for various different allegorical readings — psychological, social, political — but Tverdovsky, who also co-wrote the screenplay, overloads his simple, provocative premise with too many clashing ideas, which blunts its potential impact and obscures its message, to the extent that the film ends up tripping over its own caudal appendage.
But the fault certainly does not lie with lead actress Natalia Pavlenkova (who reunites with Tverdovsky). She’s committed and convincing in the role of Natasha, so much so that she sells some of the less believable psychological contortions her character is required to perform through sheer force of conviction, and thus papers over some of the film’s cracks in logic. And she also gets to undergo an all-time great ugly duckling makeover transition halfway through: If nothing else, “Zoology” is a shining testament to the rejuvenating power of a new hairdo.
Natasha is in her mid-fifties and her life consists of a job in zoo administration at which she’s despised by her colleagues, frequent visits to the zoo animals she adores, and a life at home with her aged, God-fearing, superstitious mother and a cat, who dies. Suddenly, she grows a tail. (It’s a bit of an issue how vague the timeline is and that her unhappy spinsterish lifestyle predates this event by so long, but the “why now?” question is never answered.) Natasha learns how to hide the appendage — a nicely grotesque practical effect programmed to twitch and spasm autonomously — wearing shapeless skirts and tucking it, despite its bulk, into her underwear.
The doctor she visits merely glances at it and orders an X-ray. The radiologist is a handsome, personable young man, Peter (Dmitri Groshev), whose own reaction to her peculiarity is encouragingly accepting. They meet again, they get drunk, Natasha gets her hair done, buys a sparkly dress, and they start to date. Meanwhile, word has seeped out into this superstitious little seaside town of a woman with a tail, and the locals trade rumors that she is a demon with nefarious powers.
Thus far it is unfolding nicely, and the subtle, cool-toned palette of Alexander Mikeladze’s camerawork makes the most of its interesting, practical locations. But then the waters get muddier. The impulses of the film’s social allegory — which might suggest that conformity is dangerous and one should let one’s freak flag fly — are countermanded by the more personal reading, in which Natasha is ultimately grossed out by Peter’s way-too-into-it sexual enthusiasm for her tail. And that’s where the metaphor breaks down, because if the tail stands for Natasha’s individuality, how can Peter getting off on it be a bad thing? Beyond that, isn’t it the wrong message that Natasha’s newfound self-worth should in fact not derive from her tail, or her own relationship to it, but from her belief that this hot guy liked her in spite of it? The film’s tentative ambitions as a manifesto for accepting and celebrating your own uniqueness are dented by Natasha’s reliance on the approval of others, especially when those others are, in Tverdovsky’s pessimistic worldview, hardly worth the bother.
Indeed, there’s very little warmth in how the film treats its supporting characters — from the bullying harpies at Natasha’s office, to the unsympathetic Orthodox priest who denies her communion, to her own mother, obsessively painting crosses all over the walls to ward off the demon she doesn’t realize lives inside the house. Even Natasha, ostensibly the soul worth saving here, ends up worse off than she was before her brief interlude of happiness. “Zoology” has provocative moments and a well-judged performance at its center, but the rather easy cynicism of its final act leaves us unsure of what overall conclusion to draw, except that with a tail or without, as a proud, take-me-as-I-am freak or a dowdy don’t-look-at-me dormouse, who would even want to engage with this loveless, spiteful world?