Salla Tykkä is fond of clashing incongruities. In Power (1999), the film she dedicated to her father, a young woman, naked but for boxing trunks, shifts and shuffles in the ring while holding her own against an outsized male slugger. If these fisticuffs are meant as a parody of the frightening one-sidedness of gender and power, Tykkä’s recent film Zoo (2006) takes a more nuanced approach. This time disparity is served up as a statistical exception for women: suicide. Women take their lives in extremely low numbers compared with men. Across all age groups the percentage of women who die by their own hands barely approaches 10 percent, while for men it can soar towards 80 percent. Indeed in his widely read analysis Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study (1963) Louis I. Dublin concludes that suicide ‘may be called a masculine type of behaviour’.
The directorial warping that nimbly shaped Tykkä’s earlier films is here again in Zoo, albeit in a lower register, mapping the male psyche with tendencies towards self-destruction onto her newest female protagonist. In this film a well-turned-out young woman with a neurotic’s grip on her camera wanders around a derelict zoo. When an idyllic pond inside one of the abandoned animal compounds proves irresistible, she unfalteringly processes into the murky water, reclines in a slumping posture that could have been inspired by the Christ in El Greco’s Pietà (1587–97) and there serenely drowns. Suicide, inscrutable as it is, seems even more so as Tykkä casts a spell of timelessness fed by the art direction, which never strays from enduring classics: the woman wears a chocolate brown Dior-style tweed suit with three-quarter sleeves, and her hair is swept back in an elegant French twist. Only her camera, a Canon AE-1 (produced between 1976 and 1984), hints at a possible ‘when’. Then again, in the aftermath of suicide, the ‘why’ question trumps all others.
The blonde – a ringer for Tippi Hedren, the Alfred Hitchcock star – is solidly played by the Finnish actress Terhi Suorlahti. Suorlahti’s character commits suicide 12 minutes after we meet her, and there are many missing rungs on that ladder, so the actress interprets her character narrowly. This leaves plenty of room for Samuli Saastamoinen’s cinematography, props laden with meaning (such as the Canon) and the zoo’s inhabitants (an owl and a tiger) to deliver crucial supporting roles. The camera is cast as a divining-rod that scouts the perfect death scene. Over and over again Suorlahti’s character holds the viewfinder to her eye, but she never releases the shutter. Contemplating an owl in the aviary, she is on the verge of a picture but leaves it for another time. When urgency inexplicably sets in, her wandering becomes a reticent scamper. Following on is the exceptional penultimate scene, where her desperation grows beneath the zoo’s pergola. As Suorlahti manically turns back and forth, Saastamoinen’s camerawork coolly orbits her edgy psychotic drama and then, like a sling, launches the film on its final trajectory. Immediately events quicken. Suorlahti hurries towards her pond and, presumably with the auto-timer ticking, steadies her camera on the rocks above to make the first and last picture, which will become her sole surviving witness.
If there is a failing to this film, it is that Max Savikangas’ feroce staccato score owes more than it should to Bernard Herrmann. Still, Tykkä has marshalled forces to construct something exemplary. It’s OK to feel that Zoo, lacking a script, expresses something ‘extra-subjective’, but this should not lead to lackadaisical interpretation – far from it. As with any accomplished drama, what drives Tykkä’s film is what motivates her character – and that is self-murder. In Power, taking on masculine behaviour (in both senses of that phrase) was compulsory, but in Zoo the character surrenders to her daemons as all suicides yield to their demons. Which brings us to the leading role in Tykkä’s film – the demon of destructive masculine behaviour – a creature personified by darkly portentous filmic spikes that reoccur throughout Tykkä’s film. They materialize ferociously, as a series of nebulous but vicious underwater contests between a dozen or more men carried off in a stainless steel tank, impaling Tykkä’s meandering narrative and turning monotony into critically decisive moments. Maliciously, Tykkä’s ‘leading character’ jostles the well-kempt blonde towards her dreadful end. The first of these passages breaches the film’s opening moments: from the tank’s floor we see one of the male figures floating at the surface mocking a dead man’s float. How could we have known that in that first enigmatic moment (we later realize how heartless it was) the story’s already told?