When the phantasmagoric “Petrov’s Flu” opens in a crowded bus—a nightmare of jostling, rippling bodies—it seems clear that there’s more troubling to its hero than a typical seasonal illness. Sweaty and unsteady, he navigates among the other heaving, grumbling passengers. Then a man yanks him off the bus, someone hands him a gun, and Petrov is suddenly in a firing squad mowing down prisoners – and then he gets back on the bus and rejoins the noisy horde from which he never quite escapes. Welcome to Russia!
For the next two and a half hours in this funny, chaotic, dazzling film (it was at the Cannes Film Festival 2021), Petrov (Semyon Serzin) continues to sweat and stagger as he roams a desolate cityscape. Feverish and often plastered, he’s in bad shape, and so is his world, with its foreboding faces, smooth gloom, and boisterous human comedy. His reason for walking is not clear. But as he wanders, he continues to slip into bizarre musings as he meets friends, drinking and drinking again. It is initially unclear whether he is trying to escape reality or whether it eludes him.
Much of what happens in “Petrov’s Flu” is intentionally and pleasantly destabilizing. It takes place over a fairly condensed period of a day or two (maybe!), but includes several lengthy flashbacks that extend the total time frame by decades. And while the story is relatively simple – Petrov travels through a strange, sometimes hellish realm, summoning Odysseus and Leopold Bloom in their respective underworlds – the filmmaking is rich in fantasy and not bound by the usual time-and-space constraints. When Petrov enters one location, he sometimes leaves an entirely different location.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov has become well known abroad in recent years for his difficulties with the Russian government. In 2017, he was placed under house arrest, charged with embezzlement of approximately $2 million. The allegations were seen as retaliation by the Kremlin for both Serebrennikov’s work and his views on, among other things, Russian censorship, the country’s aggression abroad and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He was tried and convicted, but in March, after the remaining sentence was suspended, Serebrennikov fled to Germany, where he remains.
It’s hard not to take this history into account while watching “Petrov’s Flu”, which paints a bleak, wistful, tragically funny portrait of a man, a people, a world. But despite the grimness, violence, and grotesque bleating of some hateful, biased trolls, the film never drags you down (though it may wear you out) as it’s backed up by Serebrennikov’s bravado, unfettered filmmaking. As the wonderfully restless camera travels alongside Petrov – as walls disappear and locations merge – it begins to feel as if both the character and the director are trying to imagine a way out.
While Petrov dreams, drinks and wanders, a sketchy portrait of him is created. He has a family, although it is complicated. He says he is divorced but refers to his ex, Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), as his wife. Like Petrov, she also experiences lurid, cruel fantasies. The couple have a young son and all three seem to live in the apartment where Petrov draws comics. He and Petrova also sleep together, having sex that becomes uncomfortably aggressive and at one point inspires Petrov to get out of bed and draw. Some of the comic panels he’s working on seem to reflect what’s happening on the screen.
Part of what gives the film its suspense and kick is that it’s not always clear how much of what’s going on inside Petrova and Petrov’s minds. The film is based on the Russian novel ‘The Petrovs In and Around the Flu’ by Alexey Salnikov. Despite the English title, the film regularly shifts from Petrov to Petrova, who also experiences hallucinations. These take place during fraught, frustrating encounters with other people. She is silent, as if possessed, her eyes turn black for a moment and she uses terrible violence: she pounding on the face of one man and slitting the throat of another.
Whether these dark thoughts originate in Petrov or Petrova seems immaterial. The point is, these insane visions engulf the characters — and the film — over and over, transporting them from their mundane brutal reality to an equally brutal fantasy world. Sleeping or not, they dream, but their dreams are nightmares that are alternately inventive and liberating, grotesque and suffocating. At least Petrov flashes back to his relatively quiet childhood, a period of light and tenderness, a time before Russia’s current regime. And of course Petrov is an artist, which I think is finally his salvation, as much as for the hugely talented Serebrennikov.
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