The latest film from Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov opens in a stuffy and oppressive environment. Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is on a crowded bus, sweating and coughing as he is jostled by the grumbling crowd. It is new year’s eve, and the drunken revelry and fireworks are indistinguishable from an apocalyptic war zone. A drunk passenger accosts him, braying about Brezhnev’s betrayal and how the present administration are crooks and deserve to be shot. Suddenly, the bus is pulled over and a masked man yanks Petrov into the night. He thrusts a kalshnikov rifle into Petrov’s hands and lines him up to form a firing squad, executing tuxedo-wearing government cronies. The scene resets, and we are back on the bus with Petrov. We are given to understand that we have just seen was a fantasy brought on by his fever, prompted by the sermon delivered by the drunken orator. But was it?
This is perhaps the perfect introduction to Petrov’s Flu, a film adapted from the novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu by Alexey Salnikov. It is disorienting, darkly comic, and treats brutal violence as being as mild and everyday an inconvenience as a bad head cold.
As the film progresses, we learn that Petrov is a comic book artist with a plethora of unsavoury friends. His wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), is a librarian with a shocking secret. When her emotions run too high, her eyes turn black and she becomes a violent sadist, dispatching people who irritate her with near superhuman strength. This may sound like a relatively straightforward set-up for a genre piece, but don’t be fooled – nothing here is straightforward.
Petrov wanders through the story sliding in and out of reality. Time slows, accelerates, reverses and repeats. A striking sunset becomes wallpaper that Petrov rips through to reveal yet more grim, post-industrial wasteland. He enters a room only for the camera to pan to his enormous face looming into the window, and we realise that we are in a doll’s house. With boundless energy, the film rips rug after rug out from under its audience’s feet, assaulting them with bewildering and grotesque imagery.
One area that Petrov’s Flu is consistent in is the confidence of its filmmaking craft. The movie has a highly visual sensibility. Tactile surfaces abound, and frames can be cluttered with curios to draw the eye. It puts us in mind of the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Here, the violence is brutal and shocking, but often choreographed and performed with a balletic grace. The dark comedy is legitimately funny, with the casual attitude that the film’s characters take to death and violence leading to some moments of bloody slapstick. Grim, deadpan delivery of even the most absurd statements can also be a source of fun.
As the film progresses, we return to a memory that seems to haunt Petrov – a new year’s party that he attended as a child. We return again and again, exploring the same events from different perspectives, with motifs from that day recurring throughout the film. This is as close as the film is willing to get to a recognisable plot structure. It hints at something underpinning the chaos just enough to anchor the story and keep the audience engaged with the mystery, while still holding its secrets close to its chest.
With its ’90s setting and backdrop of decaying artifacts from the soviet union, it’s easy to see Petrov’s Flu as a kind of waltz through the end of history. The great ideological battles of the 20th century are put to rest, and there is nothing for our characters to do but drink, smoke and copulate amidst a scene of of accelerating societal decay. Certainly, the flashbacks to Petrov’s youth in the ’70s seem somewhat idyllic, with his parent’s nudity hinting at a kind of prelapsarian bliss.
Then again, this explanation too seems lacking and incomplete. An audience in a screening of Petrov’s Flu will probably find themselves adopting and abandoning a series of frameworks by which to make sense of the kaleidoscopic madness unfolding before them. However, the film delights in defying expectations and refusing to be categorised.
Crucially, this meandering and dreamlike storytelling style doesn’t mean that the film lacks hard edges. There’s a rage at the heart of the movie, a disgust at these characters and the world they inhabit – a world that seems to passively accept racism, classism, violence and government corruption as facts of life. Director Kirill Serebrennikov is an anti-government activist who directed his last film while under house arrest. He is currently under a suspended sentence that prevents him from leaving the country. Petrov’s Flu certainly plays like a film made by a director with a history of politically motivated confinement. It has a frenetic energy and aggressive pace that refuses to be contained, and exhibits bitter fury at the state of things, a white-hot rage that at times borders on the nihilistic. While it never gets specific about its political messaging, this sense of anger and injustice is palpable throughout.
Petrov’s Flu is a complicated and enigmatic beast. However, it throws enough red meat to the audience in terms of humour and near-cartoonish ultra-violence to keep them engaged, entertained and primed to pick up clues as to its deeper messaging. Although baggy in parts and sometimes frustratingly obtuse, it generally maintains good energy and pacing. With an ambitious scope and some real filmmaking panache, the film is an enormous technical accomplishment. Petrov’s Flu is a tale to be experienced as much as watched, and will leave audiences truly shell-shocked.