Petrov isn’t doing well. It’s nighttime, he’s on a bus at night, and he’s got a fever. He sees, and takes part in, things that probably, hopefully, aren’t actually happening: violence, murder, weird, weird shit. The people around him may not have come down with the flu, but the snippets of conversations he hears are just as weird and ominous: the people are highly unpleasant, they’re selfish and paranoid and judgmental, happy to throw each other to the wolves. If Petrov wasn’t ill, he might even almost be relieved when the FSB stops the bus, drags him off and throws him into a van – but it turns out that while this episode really does seem to happen, it’s not the FSB but a bunch of mates of Petrov’s. Oh, and a coffin with a dead person inside. It’s one of those nights, and it’ll only get stranger.
Have you ever seen a film that felt like a fever dream? A movie so hallucinatory that you’re never quite sure where reality ends and the head trip begins? If you have, and if you enjoyed it, you may want to put Petrov’s Flu on your list. Petrov’s journey may be phantasmagoric, but he’s not the only one whose days and nights in post-Soviet Yekaterinburg is delirious. His whole family catches the illness from him that arguably he got from the sick, messed-up society he inhabits. The wife he is separated from, a librarian, fantasises about uninhibited sex between the rows of books one moment, and about delivering a brutal beatdown on unruly library patrons the next. When she’s not working or at home, she stalks men through the desolate city: men that have drawn her ire and that deserve to die, a sentence she delivers with the kind of efficiency you’d expect from an experienced librarian. The thing is, though: are her murderous sorties real? The deaths are mentioned on the evening news – but then, is anything in this world real? Because, quite honestly, who could bear to live in a world such as this, where the strongest take what they want, the authorities are lethargic, bureaucratic and incompetent, where it’s only the brief explosions of violence – over-the-top revenge fantasies, gunshot suicides – that have a strange, feverish beauty? Well, those and the Snow Maiden that haunts Petrov’s memories.
Kirill Serebrennikov, the writer-director of Petrov’s Flu (based on a novel by Alexey Salnikov), isn’t a fan of the Russian government, and it seems that the feeling is mutual. After speaking out against the 2014 annexation of Crimea and in support of Russia’s LGBT community, his home and the theatre he directed were raided. His trial at the time was described as Kafkaesque, and Petrov’s Flu too has a quality that could be described as punk Kafka. The world that Petrov and his family inhabit is one in which odd things seem to be going on just off-camera but increasingly bleeding into the film itself, and barely anyone seems to be in control of their own lives. Any happiness seems to be a thing of the past – but memories and flashbacks suggest that even the beautiful past is a fairytale, a dream of a different kind. Petrov keeps remembering a children’s Christmas party when he was young, he remembers Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, but his child’s-eye view of the beautiful young woman is undone for us during a long stretch recounting her story.
But is her story any more real than Petrov’s? Is Petrova’s? The film’s fever dream seems to extend to everyone. None of the story strands are told by reliable narrators, and that’s the point: they are symbolic of the degree to which reality has been broken in the world Serebrennikov depicts, and the post-Soviet present is unreal, much as the Soviet past was. Through Serebrennikov’s lens, and through the eyes of his characters, life in Russia is a form of delirium, powered by untruths and fabrications, as well as by fantasies and wishes that often curdle into something unhealthy. Petrov (Semyon Serzin) seems to have no filters due to his fever, so everything, reality as well as fantasies and fears, melts into an unstable whole. It may not be real, but it attempts to recount a truth that bog-standard realism simply isn’t up to representing.
Which works fantastically well when you’re looking at individual scenes, but it undermines the emotional arcs that Petrov’s Flu works on building up. Petrov himself remains something of a blank, but there is emotional resonance in Petrova’s story, even if it is executed (pun fully intended) as a black comedy much of the time, as well as in the flashbacks centred on Marina (Yulia Peresild), the young woman who plays the Snow Maiden at the Christmas party Petrov remembers so intently. There is a poignant streak of melancholy throughout Petrov’s Flu, but it is fragile, and the film’s reliance on flights of fancy and on postmodernist techniques undermine it. This may be intentional, at least in part – I don’t think Serebrennikov wants his film to become sentimental – but it is a balance that is difficult to pull off. The film first invites us to make connections between characters, story strands, images and themes and to engage with these both intellectually and emotionally, and then it suggests that all of these may be the entirely fictional order a storyteller tries to impose on a chaotic world.
In sum, it is the individual parts of Petrov’s Flu that work best, bolstered by some memorable individual performances. The acting is generally solid, but it is especially Chulpan Khamatova’s Petrova (we’ve come a long way since Good Bye Lenin!) and Peresild that stand out, and that are not always helped by the self-undermining postmodernist techniques the film employs. I’m not sure yet which side of the film will win out – will its strong individual parts, which are often beautiful, striking, sometimes shocking, at other times poignant, stay with me, or does the film finally undermine itself too much, its postmodernist leanings devouring the rest of the film? Perhaps it’s like with a flu: you get through, emerge on the other side, and you feel strangely hollow. Still, there is enough there to warrant a more lasting effect, so I’m hoping that I will experience some kind of Long Petrov.