Director: Kirill Serebrennikov (Russia, France, Germany, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021
New Years Eve, Russia, the early 1990s. The country is going to the dogs, and someone on the trolleybus is sniffing loudly. In the background, passengers complain that Gorbachev sold out the Soviet Union and Yeltsin is drinking it dry. Another passenger remarks that the Tajiks and Jews are now running the country and that all those currently holding power should be shot. A woman in a blonde wig passes down the bus asking if everyone have paid their fares.
Suddenly the bus is stopped, and the sniffer, Petrov, is taken off. A man looking like a member of the secret police hands him a gun and tells him to join an execution squad. A group of men in suits and a woman in a dress are lined up against a wall, and the squad is ordered to shoot. After they fall to the ground, dead, Petrov hops back on the bus. An old man chats sweetly to a little girl before quickly changing tack and saying everything would be fine if it wasn’t for bitches like her.
The scene shifts to a librarian. She wears glasses and shortish black hair, and is annoyed that she’ll have to work late as a poetry club is meeting in the library. Suddenly there is a commotion among the poets. She grabs hold of the main offender and violently slams him against the ceiling. Then things go back to normal, and it’s unclear whether what we just saw was real or happened in the librarian’s imagination, just like the scenes we will see shortly of her fucking in the library aisles.
These two stories come together when we realise that the sniffer and the librarian are – or at least were – married. They have a son, who is running a fever, although he is desperate to go a school New Year performance starring the Snow Maiden. Petrov rings the emergency doctor and explains that his son has a fever. The doctor’s receptionist replies: “he’s got a fever, I’ve got a fever. Everyone has a fever. Ring back when he has severe pains or diarrhoea”.
Petrov goes out and bumps into an old friend Igor, who has a corpse in the back of his car. As the car drives through the town centre, Petrov and Igor banter, before they have to get out to escape the putrid stench. When Petrov returns home and tells his wife Petrova about his experiences, she asks if Igor is even a real person or just Petrov’s imaginary friend. The scene in Igor’s makeshift hearse is repeated at the end of the film when a resurrected Petrov gets up and walks off.
All this carries on for a couple of hours until we zoom back to a different festival for the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1977. In monochrome and a different apcct ratio we see a different Snow Maiden, an English teacher who has slept with one of her students. When he asks if he can come inside her, we know what’s going to happen. The Snow Maiden wears the same blonde wig as the woman who pretends to be the conductress on the bus in the opening scenes.
This is a film about dreams, and we can never be sure if what we are seeing is real, leaving aside the fact that, on a fundamental level, it has all been made up. Many scenes are interrupted by what are presumably hallucinations, such as when one of the female characters keeps on seeing her male colleagues in the nude. In one scene, someone asks the Snow Maiden if she is real or imaginary. Although she assures him that she is real, this is not true on every level.
In the closing credits we learn that many actors have been playing several parts, which is either an act of great deception, or something which was blatantly obvious to everyone except people like me who have real difficulties telling one actor apart from the next. Like many aspects of the film, this multiple use of actors is something more to be admired than loved. It seems to be just one more check box on the list to show that it is much more clever than us, the audience.
I strongly approve of Petrov’s Flu’s right to exist in a world of bland superhero films which lack any curiosity. This right does not extend to me having to watch it all, especially as it’s 2½ bloody hours long. This is a film which is trying to do a lot – too much – and is often wilfully obscure. It is as if the director doesn’t want us to know what’s going on. Which Is great If you’re playing to a room of film students, less so if the people watching have paid for an entertaining night out.
Some of the film’s opacity could be down to it being made by a known critic of Putin. Director Serebrennikov was not allowed to accompany the film when it was shown at Cannes, and is obviously unable to directly criticise the current régime. But should we make a virtue of this necessity and celebrate the way in which it indirectly attacks the president? I’ve been down this road before with Leviathan, a film whose politics may be impeccable but is deadly boring to watch.
Petrov’s Flu is not as boring as Leviathan. Some of the individual scenes are fascinating, and you never lose interest in working out what the fuck is going on. But the film’s nature means that it is inchoate and doesn’t really hold together as a whole. It is strange that Serebrennikov is the director of Leto, the 2018 film which was much less explicitly political, but in its depiction of dissident musicians speaks much more clearly to a standard audience – in Russia or elsewhere.
Petrovs Flu is an interesting enough intellectual experience, less so if you actually want to enjoy yourself. So, do give it a go, but only if you’re in the right frame of mind.