First the flu in the title and then the coughing and wheezing of people on the crowded Yekaterinburg tram in the opening scene. A pandemic film? No, not again. But wait, please don’t be too hasty! Because a few moments later it becomes clear: Kirill Serebrennikov’s new work is of a completely different shape – and as far as the corona virus is concerned, at most a gloomy foreboding (the film was shot from October 2019 to January 2020). The flu that plagues Serebrennikov’s title hero and his family is just a narrative tool for the director: he’s concerned with delirium. For its disruptive power. About the dissolution of reality, everyday life, the status quo.
The plot is therefore not easy to explain. Petrov is a weary comic artist who wanders through strange, post-Soviet, urban nightmare landscapes – hallucinating and drunk most of the time. Scene is a Russia of disillusioned drunkards and crumbling facades. On the tram, Petrov overhears a murmured tirade that the country is broken, ruined by “Gorby”, wound up by Yeltsin.
There is always a way out. Even if there is no way out
It lasts much longer Movie but then don’t deal with reality. Instead, in one of his feverish dreams, Petrov is dragged off the tram and suddenly finds himself part of a surreal firing squad on the street. His ex-wife Petrova is actually a librarian, but in between turns into a man-slaying super villain with demon-like eyes. There’s also the ominous FSB agent Igor, who steals hearses for fun. And Sergei, an aspiring writer trying in vain to sell one of his stories to a publisher called Hades. In between, Petrov repeatedly slips down into confused memories of his Soviet childhood in the seventies. A long, powerful black-and-white sequence is dedicated to Marina, a young woman who appears at a children’s party as the Russian snow maiden Snegurochka.
“Petrov’s Flu” is a dark, wonderfully weird beast of a movie. A black humorous labyrinth of absurdities. With a lot of sweat and tears, vodka and dirt. What is fact here and what is delusion is never quite clear. Nothing is real, everything is trick and scenery, and yet everything is true or at least of a deeply subjective authenticity. Serebrennikov is a master at allowing his audience to delve deep into his characters’ worlds of experience. After “Leto” (2018), which tells of the Russian rock scene in the eighties and the longing for freedom, with his new work he once again proves that he is one of the greatest talents in European cinema.
The Russian dramaturge, director and prominent Kremlin critic became known as head of the Moscow Gogol Center he founded, until the closure of Russia’s leading avant-garde theater. In 2017, Serebrennikov was charged with embezzlement and placed under house arrest. In 2022, a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he fled to Berlin, where he now lives and works.
It is difficult not to read “Petrov’s Flu” against the background of this biography and as a commentary on the state of his homeland. Serebrennikov’s narrative structure is bold and the imagery is imaginative. But the settings are desolate and the characters are tragically trapped in influenza fever, intoxication or nihilism. They eke out an existence riddled with the Soviet past and fantasies of violence.
Visually, the film is a stunner. In long tracking shots, Serebrennikov follows Petrov and the other characters through their Russian underworld. Different levels of consciousness are sliding into each other. Sometimes weeks or years go by without a cut from one moment to the next. Walls disappear like on theater stages. Nobody bends his film rooms these days with such relish and visually stunning as Kirill Serebrennikov. If his film has a message, it is probably this: there is always a way out, even if there is no way out. And that’s the fantasy.
Petrov’s Flu, Russia/France/Germany/Switzerland 2021. Director and script: Kirill Serebrennikow (based on a novel by Alexej Salnikow). Camera: Vladislav Opelyants. Editing: Jurij Karich. With: Semyon Sersin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Ivan Dorn, Yulia Peressild. Color film, 145 minutes.