It’s fairly unsettling that the first image you see in the Russian film Petrov’s Flu is our protagonist standing on a packed bus coughing his lungs out without a mask. Even in pre-COVID times, this was nasty; now it’s downright nightmarish. So much so that when Petrov gets off the bus to murder someone in cold blood as part of a firing squad, we’re still thinking about that horrible cough and the potential effects on others.
Petrov’s Flu feels like a difficult film to approach critically. I liked it, but it’s such a weird and fractured picture that it’s difficult to recommend. It’s made up of all these little vignettes that weave Petrov and his family in and out of reality, and you’re never sure exactly what’s genuine and what’s fantasy.
Set in post-Soviet Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, and based on the novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu by Alexey Salnikov, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu is a deeply black comedy that is full of idiosyncratic moments along the protagonist’s journey. Petrov (sublimely played by Semyon Serzin) is a comic book writer estranged from his wife Nurlinsa (Chulpan Khamatova) who decides to tag along with his neighbour Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), a strange trickster who pulls Petrov into a hearse, thankfully without a body, to facilitate their travel shenanigans. These involve getting drunk with philosophers and Petrov having a quickie with Nurlinsa in the library where she works (she initially tells a writer group having a meeting that they can’t use the library’s couch, mainly because she ends up using it with Petrov).
Serebrennikov doesn’t make it especially easy to work out what’s real and what isn’t, and it’s a marvel that the film keeps a coherent tonal centre. The opening is a great example; seeing Petrov on the bus with people around him talking about the older days of Boris Yeltsin and vague political issues, as you would imagine even on a bus over here, talking about another Boris, but then when he is pulled off, it takes that weird turn. Several abducted people in hoods are brought out and pushed against the wall, and it’s fairly obvious we’re watching a political execution, which Petrov takes part in with total nonchalance. Is this him daydreaming based on what the folks on the bus were talking about?
The film also takes some significant severe curves with its strange subplots, including one featuring Petrov’s friend Sergei, a writer who is trying to get his manuscript seen by a publishing house. He’s told that some of his stories are good but some aren’t, and it needs work, and the whole thing ends up in a murder-suicide that ends the subplot, literally, with a bang. Then we’re given an insight into Petrov’s childhood, which is shown constantly from the perspective of Petrov through the use of 8mm film. This is a really interesting part of the film, with it comparing Petrov’s present and old worlds through simple things like travelling on the bus, as well as showing the treatment he received as a child and how that affects his own parenting.
The trio of Petrov, Nurlinsa, and their unnamed son is the heart of the film, especially looking at the way the reality of their situation and how Petrov and Nurlinsa’s volatile relationship is then absorbed by their son, who falls ill. There’s a lovely sequence where Petrov takes him to a new year party, with the boy dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog, and it allows an introspective moment with both that is wonderfully honest, at least before the aliens show up. Once again, it’s that kind of film, and it rules because of that.
It’s also immensely helped by the absolutely wonderful cinematography by Vladislav Opelyants, who uses colour and format to metamorphose between vignettes. The picture was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa LF, so it was presumably treated and graded in post-production to achieve the different stock looks. Either way, it’s a fantastic effect and adds an otherworldly feel, even fairytale-like.
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The leading pair of Serzin and Khamatova tie the film together like a rug, with Serzin’s aloof presence easily defining the character and adding a sense of realism. Khamatova is fantastic, effortlessly sliding between concerned mum and murderous superhero – don’t ask, just watch the film.
Although really, that kind of sums up Petrov’s Flu. While I’ve talked about a couple of things that could be considered “spoilers”, especially in this mad world, there’s nothing that could really be ruined before seeing the film. And in a way, that makes it hard to recommend, because it’s a film that mixes a kind of arthouse Verite and action movies, all with a satirical cutting edge that is super sharp but not enough to undermine the film. As I said, don’t ask. Just watch the movie.
Petrov’s Flu is out in cinemas on 11th February.