Human Zoo is one of the most exhilarating directorial debuts I’ve seen in awhile. It’s even more astonishing that its director, Rie Rasmussen, also wrote the screenplay, co-produced the movie, and also stars in it. That got me to thinking of what Robin Williams said when he was at the Academy Awards:
“There’s the writer, producer, director; one of the few people in the world who can blow smoke up their own ass!”
But having worked with Brian DePalma on “Femme Fatale” and Luc Besson on “Angel-A,” she has learned from some of the best and shows a confidence few others have exhibited on their first feature. Released in France back in 2009, “Human Zoo” is only now making its US theatrical debut courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened for a week at New Beverly Cinema.
Rasmussen stars as Adria Shala, a Serbian-Albanian illegal immigrant who at the start is living in Marseille. We soon learn however that she is still deeply traumatized by her past, and the story shifts back and forth in time as we see her trying to survive in war torn Kosovo. Adria gets captured by soldiers and almost raped when one of them, Srdjan Vasiljevic (Nikola Djuricko), saves and takes her with him as he decides to desert the Serbian army. From there the two move to Belgrade where Srdjan becomes a gangster and deals out dozens of weapons to the highest bidder. Adria soon learns the ropes of how he does things and stays with him even as things get increasingly nasty (emphasis on the word nasty). It’s this past that threatens to tear apart her present as she finds a new love and is helping a friend obtain citizenship that will help her find a better life.
“Human Zoo” is at times a shockingly violent movie, but never in a flashy way. The violence is an integral part of the lives of these characters, and it is portrayed in all its foul ugliness. It is never glamorized as Rasmussen is reflecting the real life tragedy of what happened in Kosovo at the beginning. There is a rape scene also which is one of the most realistic in that Rasmussen never ever tries to make it look the least bit arousing as other directors might.
Watching this movie twice in the space of a week, I was blown away at how many long shots Rasmussen pulled off. We’re in a time of movies where it all seems to be about quick cuts and shaking the camera all over the place. But she makes each scene flow naturally even as they seem incredibly complicated to put together. There’s one sex scene that looks astonishingly realistic which lasts a least 2 or 3 minutes, and it’s that kind of directing that sucks you completely into the story and its characters.
She also succeeds in getting a brilliantly staged overhead shot in a gunfight sequence that has her going down a hall as we see what’s going on in the rooms surrounding it. DePalma among other movie directors have pulled off scenes like this many times, but Rasmussen makes it all her own, and it seems very fresh and not just a moment where she could simply show off what she can do.
“Human Zoo” could have been utterly confusing with its jumping back and forth in time, but Rasmussen manages to separate the timelines to where they are easily identifiable. She uses a cold blue color when presenting the past in the same way Steven Soderbergh used different colors with “Traffic.” The color suits this part of the story as it starts in war torn Kosovo and continues on into a world that’s every bit as cold it seems. Watching Adria’s journey into an abyss where the difference between right and wrong becomes seriously blurred is one she should escape from but can’t. Her friendship with Srdjan keeps growing into something else even as he maintains a detached mindset on human nature in general.
Rasmussen also gets away with tackling different issues like immigration, slavery, war, and others to where this film never feels overstuffed. They are all issues that are very important to her, and she gives time to explore them without spelling everything to the audience.
As an actress, Rasmussen gives a ballsy performance as Adria as she takes the character from a naïve young girl to a very self-sufficient one. It’s a great role for any actress because there are so many levels to play with, and Rasmussen doesn’t miss a beat. In interviews she has talked about seeing the darker side of life which taught her how to defend herself, and that life experience certainly bleeds through into her portrayal of Adria.
Another terrific performance comes from Nick Corey as Adria’s American boyfriend Shawn Reagan. At first it looks like he will coast on the surfer dude stereotype when Nick bumps into Adria by accident. But Corey imbues Nick with a love for life as we learn how he has traveled from one country to another, and he gets a great scene where he prepares to fight in a bar by stripping off all his clothes. Corey makes the scene believable and funny, and it also helps that Rasmussen said that she saw a guy do this in real life.
But the best performance by far in “Human Zoo” comes from Nikola Djuricko who gives us one of cinema’s most enthralling and seductive sociopaths with Srdjan Vasiljevic. We should despise Srdjan for what he does, but Djuricko makes him too entertaining not to be around. For the majority of this film, his eyes never tell us if he’s a good or bad guy. In watching his delight in his bad deeds and bleak perception of humanity in general, Djuricko pulls the audience in with a tight grasp to where we can’t take our eyes off him. It’s a fearless performance in that he believably portrays a person with qualities we want to believe are not a part of us and Djuricko makes an infinitely appealing character out of a certified monster.
I hope “Human Zoo” does eventually find a wider audience than it has already received. The movie more than succeeds in breaking through all borders that were in its path, and it deserves to be taken a chance on. We are still stuck in a cycle of endless (not to mention needless) remakes and movies “based on a true story,” but this movie has a life force about it that commands your attention and exhilarates you from start to finish. I can’t say that about many movies which come out these days.
* * * * out of * * * *
Rie Rasmussen Talks ‘Human Zoo’ at New Beverly Cinema
Eli Roth Talks With Rie Rasmussen about ‘Human Zoo’