That Strange Animal Called Man

in 29th Panorama of European Cinema, Athens

by Alin Tasciyan

29th Panorama of European Cinema in Athens contained three fantasy films inspired by myths, legends and science, that attribute animal characteristics to human beings. The Lure / Corki dancingu by Agnieszka Smoczynska, Zoology / Zoologiya by Ivan Tverdovsky and Aaaaaaaah! by Steve Oram imagine fables in which the characters have surreal properties. These films try to understand the strange animal we call human from a psychoanalytical approach, telling stories that deal with temptation and guilt. They also have anti-conventional attitudes investigating the essence and basis of our civilization. However, they could take their criticism one step further, yet remain very entertaining films.

Aaaaaaah!is a satire of patriarchal society: It is a version of -amateurish-Planet of the Apes in which the enslaved humans, at a pre-lingual state, rule the world! Humans in this film behave and communicate as apes in present day Britain. There is a contemporary civilization, an urban landscape, buildings, vehicles, technology and tools (including smart phones and televisions) but their behaviors are purely instinctual, based on sex and aggression. The males compete for the ‘alpha’ status in order to rule the clan and have sex with females. Up until this point there is not much difference between the depiction and the current state of our civilization but the characters in the film sniff each other and, furthermore, cry in different tones of ‘aaaaaaaah’ to converse as they dispose of the body of a loved one in a dustbin when he is dead!

Steve Oram’s sense of humour is not to everyone’s taste but it can be ‘wildly funny’ to some audiences, especially in its description of ‘manhood’. What makes the film interesting is its showing of ‘ape behaviour’ as not very different from that of human beings’. Aaaaaaaah! is at times disgusting and, at others, exhausting with all the yelling and jumping. The criticism of tribalism and male dominance based on brute force, along with the sexual potency at the core of the film is almost lost amidst the grotesque.

The Lure and Zoology on the other hand miss the opportunity to become feminist manifestos despite containing all the narrative elements a director would need. One would expect more audacity and courage in defining the complexity of female sexuality and for once empowering the heroines with revolt and joy! They are more mature and balanced films when compared with Aaaaaaaah! but the potential is not fully exploited in either film. At least, Zoology and The Lureare are able to focus on the feelings of their long-tailed heroines.

The Lure’s protagonists are two mythical creatures of the hydrosphere who wish to discover the world. They are a mixture of sirens and mermaids. Evil sirens, in mythology, lured mariners with their songs and beauty and caused shipwreck so as to eat them. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid who gives up her marine life and voice for the love of a man is another inspiration for the The Lure. Women with teeth, tail and voice are predators; women with legs and no vulva are fragile maidens in this deconstructed fairy tale.

The siren sisters, Golden and Silver surface the earth in Poland and are adopted and exploited by a family of musicians who work at a typical ‘80s kitsch ‘dancing’ in Poland. (This cross-genre film indicates its preference for the musical over comedy and horror with its original title, Corki Dancingu.) Although infatuated with the young musician, Mietek, in the beginning, Golden holds on to her siren nature and feeds on the men she enchants. Silver falls in love with Mietek and decides to get rid of her tail to have sex with him. Because, when the tail dries, it magically turns into a pair of legs, Silver still doesn’t have a vagina. Mermaids are softer versions of sirens; they are sexually passive, charming with breasts above the waist but impossible to penetrate because of the fish tail below the belly. They are desirable but untouchable. Silver goes through a transplant that is visualized in the most appalling way to make the spectator feel the brutality and pain of the action. When she finally has sex with Mietek she even loses her virginity, and the director again shows her bleeding. When Silver has lost her ‘animal’ part she has become immaculate, as if reborn. Any feminist would murmur “What a loss…” disappointingly at this unnecessarily Christian moment. Even so, The Lure doesn’t spare Silver the fate of the Andersen’s mermaid. Silver sacrifices herself for her unrequited love when Mietek marries another woman, refusing to devour him which would be her salvation. On the other hand, Golden survives by remaining ‘a monster’. Thanks to Poseidon!

Another tale and a tail appears in Zoology. Ivan Tverdovsky follows his prize-winning debut Corrections Class (2014) with the story of a woman -again- victimized by the superstitions of an Orthodox community. Natalia Pavlenkova works in the administration of a zoo and loves the animals. She is bullied by her co-workers, all of whom are physically bigger women than her, yet they all call Natalia “fat” and play childish pranks. This submissive, quiet, shy ‘spinster’ lives with her religious mother. Natalia’s life changes when her literal “pain in the ass” turns out to be the contractions of a tail! A hairless extension of her body, like a very long penis. The doctors remain indifferent to her condition and send her for an X-ray, over and over again, because the naughty tail wouldn’t stand still and the X-rays appear blurry. A love affair begins between Natasha and the radiologist, who obviously sees the tail as a fetish object. His interest gives confidence to Natasha, she becomes flirtatious, she dares to express her sexuality and desire. But when they make love the radiologist get carried away with the tail and forgets about Natasha! The tail is undoubtedly an erogenous organ for Natasha and even more functional as we understand from a scene where she takes a bath. Therefore, what Natasha needs is love and affection, not only a physical relationship. But her disappointment would be the least of her troubles.

The small-town Natasha lives in is riddled with the rumor of an embodied evil among faithful folks. It is said that a woman has a tail, just like the Beast, Satan. A tired and fed up Natasha must talk about it with her scared mother and others. As the fear in the community increases and her almost senile mother begins to draw crosses on the walls for protection, Natasha breaks down…

The way the film criticizes indifference, bigotry and superstition, and points out the demonization of women is exemplary. She stops hiding and immobilizing her tail under large garments, it moves freely as women in the street are scattered in fear. But, again, she is lonely and upset… She is the victim… One would love to see Natasha to defy this blockade and the patriarchal religious conservatism behind it…

Time will show if Aaaaaaaah!, The Lure and Zoology will reach cult status… They are undoubtedly inspiring and interesting… But to observe the not fully exploited potential that could have turned them into groundbreaking films, is heartbreaking.

Edited by Tara Judah