THE NOONDAY WITCH (POLNEDICE)

Hearing the title The Noonday Witch, many Czechologists will think of Dvorak’s 1896 symphonic poem based on Karel Jaromír Erben’s version of the Slav old folk-tale. Like most folk-tales there are endless variants: she may be old or young and may do anything from causing sunstroke to decapitating those who can’t answer her riddles, but scaring mischievous or overly curious children is one of her regular jobs.

Writer and folk-lorist Erben (1811-70) published  hundreds of Slav folk tales in collections that proved hugely popular. He turned The Noonday Witch into a folk-ish poem of twelve four-line stanzas and published it in a collection called Kytice (A Bouquet): this is an 1893 edition, and it’s translated into English here. The Noonday Witch is a Grimm-like warning to naughty children and thoughtless parents. A mother tells her son to behave or she will ask the Noonday Witch will take him. Of course he doesn’t and the Witch duly arrives. Trying to escape, the mother grabs the boy but falls in a faint and smothers him. The father returns home to find the gruesome scene.

Here’s a classic performance of Dvorak’s 14-minute masterpiece with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Vaclav Talich, featuring those lovely woody sounds that orchestras seem no longer to be producing.

 

The thirteen tales in A Bouquet proved a rich seam for nationalist composers: Dvorak got five works out of it, four of them in 1896. One of them, The Water Goblin (Vodnik), had been set as a melodrama thirteen years earlier by Zdeněk Fibich. In 1885 Dvorak had made The Spectre’s Bride (Svatební košile) into a ‘ballad’ (premiered in Birmingham) and Martinů used the same designation for the story 1932 before, in 1937, setting a more extensive selection from A Bouquet.

This isn’t the first film version of Polnedice: Juraj Jakubisco’s company compiled seven of Erben’s tales for a (less than rapturously welcomed) ‘filmpoem’ given the English title Wild Flowers. That had, as far as possible, a ‘folk-y’ look and feel but the new film updates the story to the present-day and fleshes it out with more changes, so that it’s closer to ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’.

Single mother Eliska moves to the outskirts of the rural village where her husband Tomas grew up, hiding from her young daughter the fact that he is dead. It’s September and unseasonably hot. Some of the village’s men are extremely keen to help the young woman in any way they can, but she keeps herself to herself. The old woman Anezka (who knew Tomas as a child) darkly predicts that he will return. From then on she becomes a regular thorn in Eliska’s flesh, leading to a slightly Woman in Black-ish revelation. Even so, it’s occasionally ambiguous about which one of them is the Noonday Witch: the tale’s variants, remember, feature both old and young women and the genre’s frequent alignment of sexuality and evil might lead us towards Eliska.

Hiding her husband’s death has become a habit for Eliska and though her new neighbours know the truth, it goes undiscussed. More seriously, the impossibility of proper mourning (“Cry – cry together” she is advised), and the deception and its gradual revelation poison her relationship with her daughter and drive her to the edge of madness. Ana Geislerova’s controlled performance traces the tightly-wound mother’s slow descent, punctuated by occasional explosions.

So, it’s a horror film, but not quite, as it works against some of the conventions of the genre, notably in muddying the traditional relationship between light and dark. Sure, the interiors are gloomy and conventionally ‘horror film’: shafts of gelid light, weird noises and unaccountable, suddenly moving shapes.

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But the idyllic, late-summer, sun-drenched landscape – wheat-fields and blue skies – is where some of the horror resides, prefigured in the repeated but never finished bedtime story about little Johnny, who goes too far into the field. Eliska herself becomes increasingly photophobic and the eclipse (turning off the solar light), though introduced quite late, becomes the turning point. It’s nice that that symbol isn’t laboured and overly signposted beforehand.

 

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This is all nicely counterpointed by the soundtrack’s high shimmering strings and eerie tuned percussion (the striking score is by Ben Corrigan).

After her visits to the London Film Festival, The Noonday Witch will be in town again for a screening at the Regent Street Cinema on Saturday 12 November as part of the Made in Prague Festival.

Here’s the trailer.

Director: Jiri Sadek. Writer: Michal Samir.
With: Ana Geislerova, Karolina Lipowska, Daniela Kolarova, Jiri Strebl, Zdenek Mucha, Marie Ludvikova.

 

Robin Hood

Friday night at the Barbican saw the premiere of Neil Brand’s new score to the 1922 silent Robin Hood or, more correctly, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood – yep, that’s the copyrighted on-screen title. Fairbanks had left Paramount to team up with old friends Chaplin and D.W Griffith and new wife Mary Pickford to create their own studio – United Artists. He also formed his own production company, The Douglas Fairbanks Picture Corporation. As the names suggest, all this was to gain more artistic control.

The UA quartet expected their immense appeal (Griffith, though a director, could also ‘open’ a picture) to pay dividends, but they made a set of rods for their own backs with a very ambitious production schedule. Chaplin caused some consternation by using this new artistic freedom to film multiple takes of every scene and ignore shooting schedules, massively increasing costs. Pickford’s idea seems to have been that they would continue with old studio production methods but keep the money themselves.

Fairbanks was always an athletic actor and had recently turned to bigger self-produced spectacles that exploited that to the full. Robin Hood was a natural continuation from The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921) and there followed a slew of others.

In keeping with Pickford’s “our own studio” model, Robin Hood’s crew included many UA regulars and friends. Alan Dwan – like Pickford, born in Toronto – had directed Doug around half a dozen times since 1916. He directed around 125 films over fifty years, but none are considered ‘masterpieces’, though many are very good and some approach that status. It’s true that there aren’t any camera gymnastics in Robin Hood (Arthur Edeson would be far more audacious a couple of years later in Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad), but the camera does its job, largely in showing off the lavish sets and designs.robin-hood-set

Sam de Grasse (yet another Canadian – this time from New Brunswick) plays Prince John to a tee: easy to make into a moustache twirling cliché, but in his first appearance his lip curls with just the right degree of sneer. Richard the Lion-Hearted is often a less than rewarding role: perhaps absent for most of the film, clearly a virtuous character, but still not allowed to outshine Robin. Casting Wallace Beery pretty much ensured he would be a bit lunkish, hale and hearty and certainly not a romantic lead.

Enid Bennett is OK as Maid Marian, but you can hardly imagine Robin losing his heart to her as Erroll Flynn did to Olivia de Havilland. Bennett herself admitted that the role wasn’t too demanding: “I just walked through it in a queenly manner.”

One other notable is Alan Hale. His long filmography include adaptations from Gogol, Ibsen, Maugham, Sinclair Lewis and others. Here he plays Little John, clearly so successfully that he reprised the role for Michael Curtiz in 1938, and again in 1950 (aged 58!) in The Rogues of Sherwood Forest.  He had another medieval outing, playing Blondel in de Mille’s The Crusades (1935).

But Doug and his athleticism was clearly the selling point, and throughout the film he eschews walking in favour of a gay skip, book-ended by exuberant arm-flinging. There’s also a great deal of – how shall we say – manly joshing. The effect is intensified by Robin’s early admission that he is “afeared of women”.

Whereas most versions rattle through the “going to the Crusades “ bit to get to the righteous retribution back home in Nottingham, Dwan leaves the exploits of Robin Hood largely for Part Two. But when they come they are glorious, with Robin doing all the things you’d expect: scaling walls, swinging around on ivy, engaging in swordplay, etc. Apart from killing people. Nice bloke that he is, he initially rebels by throwing pieces of fruit at John’s men and only engineers a couple of deaths by using people as unwitting human shields to die in friendly fire.

Robin Hood opened the luxurious 1,760-seat Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, named for its astonishing interior designs. It had cost $800,000 to build and was showing a film that cost a million (1922 money)! As well as the chance to ogle the arrival of the stars, the $5 ticket bought you live pre-film entertainment, the opportunity to buy additional merchandise and of course the huge spectacle of the film itself.

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From the pit came a specially written score by violinist-composer Victor Schertzinger. We can be fairly sure that it wasn’t anything like his later collaborations with Gus Khan (One Night of Love), Frank Loesser (Kiss the Boys Goodbye) or Johnny Mercer (Tangerine). Schertzinger later morphed into a director, best known for helming a couple of Hope-Crosby Road… films.  Sadly, his score for Robin Hood was no great shakes: rumpty-tumpty in the worst traditions of silent film music, inexplicably tied to song forms rather than developing organically alongside the film (the jousting scene has endless repetitions of a sub-Scott Joplin tune) and, as there were only 18 musicians, underpowered. But you can judge for yourself – the Kino DVD has a midi version of it.

Which brings us back to the Barbican. Brand is quite happy to admit to leaning on “the brothers Williams: John and Vaughan” and of course there’s some Korngoldisms in there as well. But we’re talking style, rather than outright cut’n’paste, just as he noir-ised Hitchcock’s Blackmail with Rózsa and others. The big march (originally the film’s opener before Brand moved it to delay the pleasure) is very 70s-Willliams and throughout the score he (orchestrated by Timothy Brock) finds a huge range of sumptuous colours.

Brand’s music helps pull together a film that can seem more like a series of episodes and set-pieces than a continuous narrative. But its overwhelming quality is that, like Doug’s performance, it’s endlessly energetic: in two-and-a-half hours the strings get twelve bars rest, and orchestrator-conductor Timothy Brock has to keep up by bouncing at the knees. The BBC SO were predictably brilliant, bang on every moment of Mickey-mousing but never merely beating time, rather bringing a real warmth to a hugely tuneful and romantic score. There’s a snatch of it here.

If you didn’t get to the Barbican, there’s another performance at Saffron Hall on 25 Feb 2017. In the longer term, there’s a hope of a DVD issue through the Cohen Collection, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it live.

 

 

Ascent

Fiona Tan’s Ascent is the LFF’s Experimenta Special Presentation.

So, since it’s not a normal narrative film, I thought I wouldn’t post a normal review

Dissolving clouds and studio sounds.
Fuji emerges and is submerged.
The wind is breathing.
Eyes drift through focus-points.
Stereoscopic exploration: looking/pointing.
A void, avoid.

Bowls to be filled.
Myths to be filled.
Smoke/clouds. Looking/living. Order/disorder. Notebooks:
a future to be filled.

Distant beauty – close banality.
The calm of a resting volcano.
Black ash: white ice –
Setting-sun colours
The point of irruption.

Everyday life in front on an icon.
Physical effort/frailty.
Translate/struggle for words.

Still image/moving?
The wave is not the point.
Single moments.
Cheap prints.
Memories
Valued or degraded?
Pictures of a Floating World.

Falling: the essence of blossom – peaks the moment before it falls.

Climbing/stumbling.
Cloud/rock.
Losing religion – falling:
Blind faith – looking.

Monochrome photographs, gently coloured.
Models pretending.
“I saw this: I was here.” Banalification.
Exposure-streaked stars. Fuji and bullet train. Momentification.

Riefenstahl. Bergfilme. Woman and mountain.
Post-war democracy; censoring Fuji.
Godzilla. King Kong.

Film and fire, photographs; ice.
Melting.

The moment before dawn,
Photographed but unseen.

Everest and its tragedies.
Why climb/conquer/dominate?

Fire/ice, fire/water.

The mountain’s shadow.
The mountain and its reflections.
Ascent to banality?

The image is not the world.

Waking and dreaming.

Fiona Tan: Ascent

Tickets. Sat 08/10 (NFT1); Mon 10/10 (Curzon Soho).

 

 

 

INDIVISIBLE (INDIVISIBILI)

For whatever reason, several of the films I’ve seen so far at the LFF press screenings have had a fairy-tale element. At some point, I suppose I’ll re-enter reality. Meanwhile, here’s something about the Italian film Indivisible.

In a small town near Naples, a family is supported by its two beautiful 18 year-old daughters, who sing at local events – particularly religious celebrations. Apart from the quality of their performances and their attractiveness, their appeal lies in the fact that they are conjoined twins.

Broken-down houses and dirt roads with scrubby, unkempt verges.  To say that the landscape of Indivisible echoes Fellini’s La strada or Pasolini’s The Passion of St Matthew might seem like critical grandstanding, but there is a point to it. All these films view places that have lost their glory or been by-passed, and examines how the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised survive, and what moral compromises they are forced to make. But this isn’t a celebration of nobly struggling proletarians in a romantically brutal landscape. The father is a tyrannical manipulator, with the mother as his accomplice and there are two hanger-on uncles, all supported by the girls.

But the family is facing a problem (and at this point I should probably add a SPOILER NOTICE).

The girls are now of an age to make their own decisions and a visiting doctor has told them that it would be relatively easy to separate them. In fact, we see the slender link between them right at the start of the film and it did make me think: “Why weren’t they separated? Wouldn’t it have been better to hide that for a while.” Whatever, the diagnosis is no surprise to us, even if it is to the girls. But of course, neither is it really a surprise to their parents who clearly took the rather murky decision to keep them together to groom them as some sort of novelty act. The doctor offers to perform the operation for free, though there will be hospital costs of 20,000 Euros. But their wastrel father has gambled away all the money they have earned. Dasy, who itches to sing Janis Joplin songs, wants to leave, to join a flashy agent who has expressed an interest, and get married; Viola, not so much. But she goes along more (or less) willingly, in part because there seems so little to go back to. Having sung so often in church, they turn to the local priest for help but are rebuffed, and the agent’s yacht turns out to be something of a freak show – like Browning’s Freaks, it turns on its head the old idea of deformity being an outside sign of moral failure. They escape but are recaptured, leading to an end which, depending on your outlook, is bitterly tragic or redemptive.

It set me thinking on cinematic conjoined twins – maybe I’ll think about it some more after the Festival. So if you’re more interested in Indivisible than these thoughts you can skip the text that I’ve set range right and italic.

One of their roles is to represent the uncanny, making them irresistible to directors like Tim Burton (Ping and Jing in The Big Fish, 2003) and Caro and Jeunet (The Octopus in City of Lost ChildrenLa cité des enfants perdus, 1995). Flora and Fauna in The Addams Family (1991) also fit that bill. Perversity also lies not too far away: Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men, (Про уродов и людей [Pro urodov i lyudey,  1998), about early 20th-century soft-porn, finds room for a pair of singing Siamese twins – as they call them. And while Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) are not conjoined, they might as well be: he/they do actually have a nightmare about it.  

Of course, the daddy of these films is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) where they are portrayed, for once, by real conjoined twins – Daisy and Violet Hilton, who also appeared in the exploitationer Chained for Life (1951). The documentary Bound by Flesh tells their story.  

Twins are usually set up in linked opposition, physically embodying our own divided natures. Often dominant and passive, they share feelings but have different desires, forcing them to face practical difficulties revolving around individuality and self-determination, and intimacy. Yin and yang, if you like. Think of the scene in Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) where one twin calls for Robert Cumming to be handed to the police and the other’s silence marks her disagreement. The trash apogee (as with so many other genres) is provided by Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973), in which Margot Kidder portrays nice and nasty. Those shared feelings mean that even when they’re separated, conjoined twins remain, in a way, linked, as in Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers (Les Frères corses), adapted numerous times for stage and screen, Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) or, more, gorily Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.

I should also mention the Farelly Brothers’ Stuck on You (2003) whose heroes disagree about whether to go to Hollywood. Which brings us back to Indivisible.

Some of the characters are grotesques, but they are never portrayed grotesquely – they’re always believable. Seeing a way out of the grinding situation, they’ve grabbed it – but too firmly  But it’s the central performances by sisters Angela and Marianna Fontana in their first roles that keep us watching. They hold a beautiful balance between accepting the normality of being conjoined, and resenting the limitations it brings – not only career choices, but privacy (they sit on the toilet together), marriage and of course sex. There’s an ease of a lifetimes of shared movement interrupted by occasional stumbles as the two brains aim in two different directions.

In fact it’s a gentle balancing act all-round: a fairy-tale in neo-realist style (set and filmed around Caserta and Castel Volturna, 30 or so km north-west of Naples). The girls’ ‘hit’ songs mock Euro-teen-pop, but indulgently, catchy but somehow intangible.

It’s also shot through with cinephilia: the twins’ names, Dasy and Viola, remind us of Freaks, and the big-shot agent shares a name with the director Marco Ferreri. His film The Ape Woman (La donna scimmia, 1964), the story of a bearded lady, which was shot in Naples, also lies in the background of Indivisible. And when they are abandoned Christ leaves as he did Rome in La dolce vita.

But you don’t need to recognise any of that the enjoy the film.

Here’s the trailer

Wed 05/10 (NFT3) [NB sold out but check for returns]; Thurs 06/10 Embankment Garden Cinema

Buy tickets here

Director: Edoardo De Angelis
Writers: Nicola Guaglianone, Barbara Petronio, Edoardo De Angelis
With Angela Fontana, Marianna Fontana, Antonia Truppo

Production companies: O’Groove; Tramp Ltd;
Sales: True Colours

THE RED TURTLE (LA TORTUE ROUGE)

At the moment, Studio Ghibli may be the nearest thing to an ‘auteur-studio’, one whose style (as opposed to Marvel’s subject matter) is immediately identifiable. That applies even with The Red Turtle, a co-production with numerous funders, primarily from France and Belgium. It’s the first feature from writer-director Michaël Dudok de Wit (among whose short films is the Oscar-winning Father and Daughter (2001). It was seeing that film that made Ghibli’s Isao Takahata seek out de Wit to work with the studio.

It certainly has something of a Ghibli texture, though it is not Manga-ish. The animation is clean and beautiful and the backgrounds – gently washed skies, rippling forest canopies – are careful settings for the foreground action. At the same time, the protagonists’ Julian Opie features mark them as not Japanese. The story – told entirely visually, with no dialogue – has symbolic new-age tinges, with a strong environmental bent, but is ambiguous enough to avoid one-dimensional preachiness. Briefly, the story is…

SPOILER WARNING

Caught in a storm, a young man lands on a remote island beach. He tries to escape but some unrevealed force repeatedly destroys the rafts he builds. After several attempts he is thrown into the sea, and finds the culprit is a giant red turtle. Some time later, the turtle comes onto the beach and the man attacks it with a stick and angrily turns it onto its back. Eventually it dies and turns into an attractive woman. The man and the woman live together and have a son. After various adventures, the son decides to leave and he is accompanied by three turtles. The  man and woman grow old together. The man dies and, after a period of grieving, the woman turns back into a turtle and returns to the sea.

The Robinson Crusoe-esque story has enough incident – threats and and comedy – to keep us involved, and it’s lovely to look at. But while the environmental, cycle-of-life angle is clear enough (the son’s life sometimes echoes the father’s), the specifics of the symbolism are not straightforward. It’s not too wimpily wide-eyed about beautiful Mother Nature and certainly doesn’t present it/(her?) as something particularly kindly disposed towards humanity, for all the mysterious contact between the animals and the people. The turtles seem like inscrutable elders, keeping a distant, but vaguely benevolent eye on things though not always intervening to help. There are also some nice comic touches from a group of curious crabs, though one suffers a nasty fate, as a reminder of nature’s cruelty. Apart from that, one fears for a child whose explanation of the birds and the bees revolves around their turtle-mother being beaten to death.

This isn’t quite a normal Ghibli film though devotees might take it as a ‘Europeanised’ outlier to the canon. I’m not sure whether it’s quite a ‘family’ film though teenaged Ghibli-ites might enjoy it (the LFF has put it into the ‘Journey’, rather than ‘Family’ strand). In some ways it reminded me of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. Clearly, The Red Turtle will trade on the Ghibli name, and find some success (it premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard). It won’t be counted among the studio’s masterpieces, but it’s enjoyable enough.

Here’s the (far too rapidly edited) trailer

Writer/director: Michael Dudok de Wit

Production Companies: Studio Ghibli; Wild Bunch; Why Not Productions; Arte France Cinema; Prima Linea Productions; Belvision; CN4 Productions

Distributor: STUDIOCANAL

Wed 05/10 (NFT1); Thurs 06/10 (Odeon Leicester Square).

Buy tickets here

 

Wild

WILD

The LFF usually includes a few outré entries, even outside the Experimenta strand and one of this year’s is the German film Wild.

When Ania, a young office worker, spots a wolf on the outskirts of town she decides to pursue it. However, it’s not enough just to see it again, Ania becomes obsessed and wants to catch and domesticate it. When she does, the relationship develops (from her perspective) into a sort of marriage.

The premise is intriguing and Wild explores society’s expectations, particularly of women, in the work-place and in their sex-lives, and where the lines are drawn between eccentricity, oddness and insanity.

But it starts a bit flabbily. The encounter with the wolf isn’t very compelling: rather than fixing her with a piercing stare, it gazes around distractedly (never work with animals or children!) lessening the moment’s power. A few seconds of CGI would have sorted that out. And while her work is unfulfilling, Ania has to deal with a useless sister and her dysfunctional boyfriend, and the slow death of her grandfather. All this conventionalises Wild: stress has driven Ania to this odd behaviour. But both subplots are undercooked and should have been either bulked up or cut altogether: how much stranger it would have been had Ania been drawn to animalistic life simply by seeing the wolf. But that’s to criticise the film that wasn’t made.

So, Act One is a bit slow and diffuse, but things improve once it gets into its stride, hugely helped by Lilith Stangenberg’s central performance. There’s an obvious echo of the mental deterioration of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (complete with rabbit), alongside the bestiality of Oshima’s Max, mon amour and even Zulawski’s Possession; all films featuring fearless female leads. But the pacing here is a bit jerkier: after Ania’s relatively slow descent into strange behaviour, a dream sequence that riffs on a popular urban myth/joke kicks off her sudden transformation from a mousey assistant to a dynamic controller and man-eater.

Wild is definitely worth seeing for its interesting premise and a great central performance, but a bit of tightening up wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Here’s the trailer

Writer/Director Nicolette Krebitz
With Lilith Stangenberg, Georg Friedrich, Silke Bodenbender
Production Company: Heimatfilm

Sales The Match Factory

Thurs 06/10 (Vue 5); Fri 07/10 (Curzon Mayfair); Sat 08/10 (NFT2)

Buy tickets here

 

Zoology

Born in 1988, Ivan Tverdovsky is part of a new generation of Russian directors who use unusual approaches to address wider social questions rather than specific political issues. But those unusual approaches are, to some degree, a response to a political situation, where art is increasingly forced to conform to state expectations: where a biopic of Tchaikovsky denies his homosexuality and where ‘obscene language’ is banned.

Tverdovsky’s father, a documentarian, failed to discourage his son from becoming a film-maker, and after making some documentaries of his own, he turned to features with Corrections Class (2014), based on Ekaterina Murashova’s novel and set in an unsupportive school for physically and psychologically impaired. His second feature, Zoology, covers the same territory: unappreciated outsiders in drearily enervating surroundings, finding love and its attendant complications. Both films have a documentary feel, balanced with elements of magic realism: Zoology develops its fabulous edge when the heroine grows a tail.

Zoology won prizes at the Sochi Kinotavr and Karlovy Vary festivals, and has or will be shown at festivals including Toronto, Zurich, San Sebastian and Chicago. But as yet it’s not been picked up for distribution in the UK, so the LFF may be your only chance.

Natasha is a middle-aged, put-upon administrator at a zoo, where her colleagues are mostly interested in mocking her, speculating on her virginity and whether a bout of illness is food poisoning or cancer (Tverdovsky tries to blindside us with a third option), and ensuring their own misdemeanours go discovered.

Home life is barely better, as Natasha’s religiously judgemental mother tells lurid stories about non-Christians (as so often in Russian films, there’s no father on the scene).

When Natasha develops pains in her lower back she goes to hospital, and Piotr, the radiologist, is the first empathetic character in the film. He expresses no particular surprise at finding her tail and by her second visit she’s already using the affectionate ‘Petya’. A strange May-to-September love affair develops, oddly innocent, filled with inconsequential fun and minor irresponsibilities.

But having revealed the tail, Tverdovsky doesn’t spend very much time on it: it’s a Hitchcockian McGuffin: a device to kick off the narrative but which we don’t really need to know much about (what are The 39 Steps?) It pops up (or, rather, out) every now and again to remind  us that it’s there but Tverdovsky is more interested in more general questions.

What it’s about is an outsider defining themselves in and against society. Natasha is picked on at work and home and rejected by neighbours when her condition becomes apparent.  Her mother’s and neighbours’ superstitious religiosity and fascination with the soul contrasts with her practicality and being more comfortable with ‘soul-less’ animals. And age. Love transforms Natasha from a dowdy middle-aged woman into a giggling teenager, dancing around her bedroom and taking selfies, going to a cheesy Russian disco, and being told off by her mother for dressing inappropriately. But the full (adult, animal) consequences of love bring a final crisis.

Zoology’s documentary feel means that, like Piotr, we quickly accept Natasha’s tail: the hand-held camera follows her down corridors or on her solitary beach walks. The melancholy mood is intensified by the pallid, blue-green pallete and the sparse use of music, mostly selections from Tchaikovsky’s piano works.

Natalia Pavlenkova dominates the film, a finely nuanced performance that, though often wordless, captures Natasha’s brow-beaten, slightly dislocated quality and growing confidence equally well.

Fables have always been popular in Russia. Ivan Krylov was a sort of latter-day Aesop, and such ‘covert’ narratives were useful in Soviet times. But there’s less need for such artifices now and Tverdovsky move further away from the form in refusing to give the film a clear ‘moral ending’. I won’t give it away, but it might imply Natasha moving forward or back with her life.

Though it’s early in his fiction film career, Zoology’s subtle balance between reality and fable confirms Tverdovsky as a director to watch.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

  • Writer/Director: Ivan Tverdovsky
  • Production companies: New People Film Company; Arizona Productions; Moviebrats Pictures.
  • Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Dmitri Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Maria Tokareva

Buy tickets here