“Human Zoo” is one of the most exhilarating directorial debuts I’ve seen in some time. It’s even more astonishing to learn its director, Rie Rasmussen, also wrote the screenplay, co-produced the movie and stars in it as well. This got me to thinking about what Robin Williams said when he was presenting at the Oscars:
“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 De Palma on “Femme Fatale” and Luc Besson on “Angel-A,” Rasmussen 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” made its American theatrical debut a few years later courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week at New Beverly Cinema.
Rasmussen stars as Adria Shala, a Serbian-Albanian illegal immigrant who, at the movie’s start, is living in Marseille. We soon learn how 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 the 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 of them 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 which threatens to tear apart her present as she finds a new love while helping a friend of hers obtain the 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 during the war. There is also a rape scene which is one of the most realistic ever featured in movies as Rasmussen never ever tries to make it look the least bit arousing as other directors might have.
Watching this movie twice in the same week, I was blown away at how many long shots Rasmussen pulled off. We’re in a time where movies seem to be about quick cuts and shaking the camera all over the place more than anything else. But she makes each scene flow naturally even as they seem incredibly complicated to put together. There’s one sex scene which looks astonishingly realistic as it lasts two or three minutes, and it’s this kind of directing that sucks you completely into the story and its characters.
Rasmussen also succeeds in staging a brilliant overhead shot in a gunfight sequence which has her character 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 to where it feels very fresh.
“Human Zoo” could have been utterly confusing as it constantly jumps 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 in “Traffic.” The color suits this part of the story as it starts in war torn Kosovo and continues on into a world which looks 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 we cannot turn away from. 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, and yet this film never feels overstuffed. They are all issues very important to her, and she gives time to explore them without spelling everything out to the audience.
As an actress, Rasmussen gives a ballsy performance as Adria as she takes her 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 she never misses a beat. In interviews, she has talked about seeing the darker side of life which taught her how to defend herself, and this life experience certainly bleeds through into her portrayal of Adria.
Another terrific performance comes from Nick Corey who plays Adria’s American boyfriend, Shawn Reagan. At first, it looks like Corey 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 how Rasmussen said 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 as Srdjan Vasiljevic. We should despise Srdjan for what he does, but Djuricko makes him too entertaining to be around. For the majority of this film, his eyes never tell us if he’s a good or bad guy. In watching the delight he takes in his bad deeds and his 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 as he believably portrays a person with qualities we want to believe are not a part of us, and this actor makes an infinitely appealing character out of a certified monster.
I hope “Human Zoo” eventually finds a wider audience than it has already received. The movie more than succeeds in breaking through all borders 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 which commands your attention and exhilarates you from start to finish. I can’t say that about many movies which come out these days.