Review of “Petrov’s Flu”: Serebrennikov’s Intoxicating, Chaotic Vision

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It’s been two years since iconoclastic Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov was released from a 20-month house arrest for embezzlement, which is widely believed to be government invented. If things have not gone smoothly since then – the resuscitated case ended on suspended sentence last year and confined the director to his home country – at least he could move, work, and film freely around Russia. Keyword “Petrov’s Flu”, Serebrennikov’s first feature film since its release, and a perfect answer to the admittedly niche question of what kind of film one makes after such a period of imprisonment: one that moves as freely and ruthlessly as possible, unbound from a short leash Rules of time, space or storytelling.

At a mile per minute through an extravagantly surreal vision of Yekaterinburg in the insane grip (or flu, if you will) of a flu epidemic, “Petrov’s Flu” is a rowdy, heady return to top shape for Serebrennikov. His last film, the eccentric rock biopic “Leto”, was perhaps his first time in competition in Cannes (this is his second, of course), but it wasn’t one of his kinetic works. His latest more than makes up for the difference: unprepared viewers can get whiplash from his exuberant escalation of scenes and violent changes in perspective and narrative focus, all of which, however, work towards a clear metaphorical expression of deranged social unrest and negligent leadership. The random response to his pandemic storyline could fuel commercial interest in a nonetheless challenging acquired flavor proposition: some will be amazed by its feverish brilliance, while others will feel like they are on the waterboard with Smirnoff.

In a story that supposedly spans a day – but also races elastically through memories and dreams – our tired shepherd through much of the insane madness is the jaded mechanic and comic artist Petrov, wonderfully played by Semyon Serzin with a sagging, hanging demeanor, that doesn’t seem to have shifted for years. It’s New Years Eve, and we encounter him on a sardine-filled tram, wrapped in muddy, puffy layers of winter, and coughing so hard that a COVID-era audience might physically cringe at the screen. “You look like you have cancer,” remarked a passenger, unhelpful.

It’s just flu, he insists, and that certainly doesn’t make him special. Everyone in this misshapen, hapless city far from Moscow seems to have it in some form: disease has apparently become part of the daily life of this world, just an extra layer of the ubiquitous discontent of society. There are no masks here, let alone social distancing as Serebrennikov crams the frame with colliding human activity. Petrov trudges through muddy, busy streets to work, repeatedly distracted and held up by conversations and conflicts; In the background there are wild seizures of pedestrians on the sidewalk, while civil groups are gunned down without comment. This is all normal: who has time to complain about a cold?

Across town, his wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova) seems to be leading a quieter life as a librarian, leading a poetry discussion group – until the meeting becomes absurdly insulting when Petrova’s eyes turn black, her body forgets about gravity, and she loses the offensive Party to a pulp. While her husband is sketching comics in his meager spare time, he may be aware that he’s married to a real, avenging superhero who defeats violent men when necessary – although she’s got the flu too, of course. As a couple, they’re more common together than apart, arguing and bickering in the matchbox apartment they share with their young son – the only one who seems to be excited about the prospect of a New Year while his parents try to get him to to bring a lively neighborhood festival.

The party sees, as is Russian custom, hordes of children donning costumes and jostling to exchange germs and gifts handed out by adults disguised as Father Frost and the Snow Maiden. It is a less surreal set piece than most of “Petrov’s Flu”, if no less cacophonous and disgusting, and it turns out to be the unlikely entry point into Serebrennikov’s most radical and unexpected turntable – as time and characters change, Vladislav Opelyants’ gangrenous dizziness The induced lens turns to a warm moody monochrome, and another movie takes the lead for an extended period of time. How these two films and dimensions interlock is the most satisfying of the script’s various mini-puzzles to be solved, not least because the possible overlap represents an atypically delicate point in an otherwise aggressively sober exercise.

In the adaptation of Alexey Salnikov’s locally acclaimed novel “The Petrows in and Around the Flu”, Serebrennikov comes across an inexorable freight train register for the film, the influence of the dense grotesque of certain Russian literature and the heightened, thinly veiled political satire of his own drama work in the theater Moscow Gogol Center. The script doesn’t, and doesn’t have to, say anything about its anti-government goals: This is a work fueled by puffy, all-encompassing, sometimes hilarious anger about a general place and way of life currently directed by its director. Due to its intoxicating mixture of impulses and influences, “Petrov’s Flu” is cinema to the last, the camera rides like a stubborn horse, while individual shots carry us between places, epochs and states of mind – the exciting, chaotic work of a man released.



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