Perhaps the best way to describe Petrov’s Flu, the latest from Russian stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, is as an extended cinematic fever dream. However, this simple assessment doesn’t adequately capture the film’s overarching artistic thoughtfulness. It never descends into pure Dadaist absurdism, instead crafting a hallucinatory environment that’s politically poetic in narrative and incisively innovative in visual style. Though Petrov’s Flu is totally non-linear and at times deliriously dense, its 145-minute runtime hardly weighs on the viewer. Serebrennikov creates a compelling labyrinth of a story, composed of delusions, memories, projections, fantasies and banal real-life occurrences—all seamlessly blending and blurring together with exquisite precision.
Based on the 2016 novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu by Alexey Salnikov (a hit in Russia that’s yet to be translated into English), the film begins with Petrov (Semyon Serzin) on a packed bus in bustling Yekaterinburg on New Year’s Eve. Pale, clammy and incessantly coughing, Petrov looks so ill that a woman gives up her seat and demands he get off his feet. “You look cancerous,” she plainly observes. “It’s just the flu,” he counters before taking a load off. Just one minute later, the bus comes to a screeching halt. Petrov is beckoned off the vehicle, given a rifle and ordered to partake in a makeshift firing squad. Citizens in suits and lavish fur coats are unloaded from an unmarked van, lined up against a wall and swiftly shot dead. He’s thanked for his service and allowed to re-board the bus. His fellow riders look on behind dingy, fogged glass—their faces are blank, almost bored.
This all occurs less than five minutes into the film, imparting a sense of whiplash onto the viewer that is exhilarating in its immediacy. It becomes increasingly clear that very little of what actually occurs in the film is rooted in objective observation, opting for an intangible psychedelic concoction brewed from one’s innermost intrusive thoughts and brain-melting febricity. After all, the flu Petrov’s been stricken with does begin to induce marked hallucinations—and his librarian ex-wife (Chulpan Khamatova) and their son (Vladislav Semiletkov) catch the very same bug.
Apparently, this sickness has completely ravaged the entire population (an eerie pandemic allusion considering it was filmed in 2019). Several other characters waltz in and out of Petrov’s sickly jaunt across the city—trickster neighbor Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), deeply troubled aspiring writer Sergei (Ivan Dorn), childhood friend Sasha (Yuri Borisov)—their outlandish interactions akin to waking nightmares. Despite violence, tragedy and bleak selfishness, a distinctly Russian streak of humor ultimately defines each encounter, casting a preposterous air that’s grimly delightful to relish in.
What truly cements the cinematic ingenuity of Petrov’s Flu is its ever-shifting visual framework. The film is first presented in an exaggerated widescreen, awash in a yellow-green tint that conveys the dim overhead lighting that floods an interior amid dark winter landscapes. The film later mimics a home movie with a 4:3 aspect ratio, drenched in a nostalgic warmth that is childhood incarnate. This sequence is meant to evoke one of Petrov’s oldest, fondest memories, chronicling his participation at a New Year’s Day celebration in 1973. He remembers that year’s Snow Maiden, a woman named Marina (Yulia Peresild) who seemed quietly distressed. Upon holding the young Petrov’s hand to include him in a tree lighting ceremony, she notes that he’s hot to the touch. “You have a fever,” she states. Ironically, in the present-day, Petrov’s own son is battling a nasty 104-degree fever, effectively barring him from participating in the long-running local New Year’s event that his father so fondly remembers.
The next visually distinct segment is shot in rich black and white, exploring Marina’s melancholy backstory leading up to the brief exchange she shares with Petrov. Even more compelling, this sequence depicts Marina’s string of lovers as starkly nude in their shared surroundings—having already known them carnally, she is able to imagine them naked whenever she pleases. Above all, this motif is surely a middle finger to Russia’s staunchly homophobic political landscape, as male nudity drastically outweighs female in the film. (There’s also an extended novel re-enactment that involves a passionate kiss between two men, a beautiful and wholly pointed statement on the country’s intense same-sexual repression.)
It’s fitting that Petrov’s Flu rejects any semblance of confinement—narrative, visual or psychological—particularly in light of Serebrennikov’s newfound political freedom. Arrested in 2017 on embezzlement charges (believed by human rights activists to be entirely fabricated due to his ties to anti-conservative causes), he was placed on house arrest for nearly two years. He began directing this film when that sentence was commuted, but in 2020, he was again sentenced to three years of probation and prohibited from leaving the country. When this ruling was lifted in March 2022, Serebrennikov swiftly left Russia and is not expected to return anytime in the near future.
With Petrov’s Flu finally releasing stateside after premiering at Cannes in 2021 (which the director was barred from physically attending), the liberatory nature of the film is entirely palpable. Like downing shots of vodka after receiving dizzyingly good news, the film’s harsh bitterness gives way to an intoxicating warmth that eats at the very fabric of reality. Only the sobering chill of the next morning will determine the veracity of the previous night’s exploits, some actions far more uncanny than others only in retrospect.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov
Stars: Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Vladislav Semiletkov, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Ivan Dorn, Yuri Borisov, Yulia Peresild, Aleksandr Ilyin
Release Date: September 23, 2022 (Strand Releasing)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan