Review: Willfully impenetrable, ‘Petrov’s Flu’ says it’s complicated being Russian
Like a misaligned car careening through an icy landscape that’s only partly visible, but poetic and pungent when it is, Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s stream-of-consciousness bender “Petrov’s Flu” isn’t your everyday journey. But a ride it squarely is, a commandingly propulsive post-Soviet delirium about a divorced comics artist coughing and hallucinating his way across a grim, chilly night/day of detours, confrontations, memories and fatherly responsibilities.
What’s real and what isn’t is part of Serebrennikov’s unbalancing act in adapting countryman Alexey Salnikov’s as-yet-untranslated-into-English 2016 novel — we seem always to be in the eye of the peculiarly Russian storm of managing outer pressures and addressing inner demons. Their specimen, Petrov, played by Semyon Serzin, is first seen in a packed wide shot of a standing-room-only night trolley, his flu symptoms noticeable, as are the assorted irritations and prejudices of his fellow passengers. One man bemoans Gorbachev selling out the country. Another gets his dentures knocked out after misogynistically harassing a little girl.
In the fracas, Petrov pockets the choppers, and is led off the bus by a mysterious figure named Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), who for some reason seeks his company. Later, after our protagonist has spent time in a van with a corpse, relived a costume-thick Christmas pageant from his Soviet-era childhood when on an aspirin high, and assisted in a suicide/arson, these dentures will speak to him at his lonely worktable at home, and by that point, it’ll seem normal. It’s that kind of movie.
A knife’s edge is also where his librarian ex-wife, Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), seems to exist, as well. She dutifully stays late to oversee a poetry club meeting, but when one of the blowhard patrons behaves badly, her eyes turn pitch-black and she’s suddenly powerful enough to pummel him bloody. But did it really happen? Serebrennikov’s artful handling of interior and exterior states doesn’t offer easy answers, but we can feel a palpable tension in the uncertainty these shifts create. At a certain point, Petrov meets a woman who doesn’t seem crazy, but tells him her son has the power to see the future and heal people. Is this just dangerous coping?
An everyday realism settles in when Petrov and Petrova converge at his apartment to assess whether their grade school-age boy — suddenly exhibiting signs of dad’s fever — is well enough to attend his school’s New Year’s party. When the frame then squeezes to a boxy 8mm, it signals we’ve entered a POV memory of Petrov’s about preparing to attend that same event as a boy, which culminated in a moment forever lodged in his brain: the beautiful lady playing the Snow Maiden, holding his hand, and showing concern.
Was she real? The final act of Serebrennikov’s film would seem to indicate so, rendered by cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants in the black and white of golden age art films. It’s the story of Marina (Yulia Peresild), a young married woman facing a tough decision about her life and reluctantly drawn into taking on a certain part in her actor husband’s rigidly organized school New Year’s party.
Reeling and rolling across space and time, with comedy and violence coloring the malaise in fits and starts, “Petrov’s Flu” is indeed like being inside a troubled, turbulent nation’s lingering sickness. Who wouldn’t start seeing things? But somehow, thanks to some bold steering, ingenious staging and a potent humanity — especially in depicting the calmness that creating art gives Petrov — the movie never feels like a pitiful wallow. Just a dizzying physical and brain scan.
Serebrennikov, a notorious iconoclast who’s had his share of run-ins with his government, hasn’t even made an angry movie with “Petrov’s Flu.” In its interlocking parts and willfully impenetrable details, Serebrennikov wants you to know that being Russian is too complicated to foreground one emotion or experience, or to rely on the safety of the linear when one day can feel like nothing and everything. This brazenly packed movie isn’t for everyone. Neither, we grasp, is being Russian.
In Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 7, Laemmle Glendale
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