In these strange times, watching characters coughing, maskless on a big screen for over two hours may be a rather unsettling experience. This is what happened to the lucky few who could watch the world premiere of Petrov’s Flu, Kirill Serebrennikov’s new visionary effort, at Cannes.
The Russian stage and film director’s feature, developed before the beginning of the pandemic and based on Alexey Salinkov’s award-winning novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu (2018), is presumably set some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It centres on Petrov, a forty-something comic book artist, who lives with his wife Petrova and their child in an unnamed place in a very gloomy Russia. During a cold, snowy winter, a flu epidemic hits the country, and Petrov is the first family member to fall ill. This flu prompts a series of hallucinatory experiences, wherein the characters begin to develop a distorted spatio-temporal perception of the present, along with icy feverish visions of violence or tenderness and vivid flashbacks from their past. The result is a visually stunning, emotionally unsettling hallucinatory tale that fittingly captures on screen the very familiar experiencing of having your reality turned upside down by a global illness.
The idea of delirium as a fertile ground to explore fears, dreams, traumas, and desires helps Serebrennikov get rid of the continuity requirements of linear, coherent storytelling, and allows him to adopt a highly playful approach in writing and directing his characters. While the film is meant to follow a day in Petrov’s life, the jumps between past and present, reality and fantasy cancel every notion of the true passage of time in the characters’ lives. Petrova, for example, initially appears as a modest librarian. Later on, however, her eyes turn demonically black and she starts showing unexpected super powers that allow her to remorselessly slaughter whoever she doesn’t like. In other scenes, we see Petrov recalling again and again a New Year’s school party, where the presence of an apathetic, beautiful Snow Queen seems to have left a scar in his childhood memories. Later on, we will also discover the (real? imagined?) backstory that led the mysterious girl to play the part of Snow Queen on that day, and her relationship with the other members of the theatre company organising the school play. All of this, while a pandemic sweeps through their already grim, fragmented reality.
To some, this chaotic psychedelia may embody the metaphor of an embroiled family or of a collapsing country, in line with how Russia was perceived and portrayed in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. But this take would differ from that of the director. Speaking to The Calvert Journal, Serebrennikov explained that Petrov’s Flu is “a delirious place in between death and life, and the [lead] character belongs to it, thus he can easily travel in between the old and the new year, between past and present,” where said flu is a “moment of transition between normality and an unknown future.”
The July release of the film has been “liberating” for Serebrennikov, a Cannes regular after he premiered his 2018 film Leto at the festival; as he had to overcome multiple difficulties during the film’s convoluted production process. As a result, the film’s hallucinatory, grim aesthetic is a combination of carefully planned directorial decisions, and last-minute improvisations. “We filmed it during a very strange Russian winter, with no snow at all. Therefore, the snow you see there is entirely artificial. That was one big problem to solve. Also, our shooting schedule was dense and complex. The actors are all big stars in Russia, so we needed to find the right time to film them. [...] I proposed to shoot at night, and that’s the main reason why most of the film is set at nighttime.”
At a time when navigating a post-Covid world is familiar to many, it is no surprise that a tale of a part-fantasy, part-reality pandemic world won critical appraise at Cannes and beyond.
Serebrennikov also revealed that the film’s cinematography and soundscape are the result of a “handmade blend” boasting a vast range of artistic references from Soviet, post-Soviet and contemporary music and cinema, including the choice to shoot the flashback scenes on 16mm print to give viewers a sort of “childhood feel”. Also surprising is the film’s final long take, featuring Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ song Tupelo. Besides the visually delightful experience, the helmer did not hesitate in using theatricality to make the whole work even more grotesque. Characterised by a predominantly over-the-top acting, Petrov’s Flu boasts several talented stage actors playing multiple parts (“up to seven different roles each”), and radically transformed by long make up sessions.
While it was a mix between the accidental and the planned, Petrov’s Flu visually outstanding cinematography was the perfect fit for the hallucinatory, accidentally timely storyline. At a time when navigating a post-Covid world is familiar to many, it is no surprise that a tale of a part-fantasy, part-reality pandemic world won critical praise at Cannes and beyond. Set to be released in Russian cinemas on 9 September, and elsewhere soon, Petrov’s Flu is an excellent example of Russian contemporary magic realism, and although it might be a rather lengthy viewing experience, it is an ultimately rewarding one, rich in irony, craziness, and surrealism.