Film of the Week: Petrov’s Flu
At the start of this week an open letter by Russian cinematographers was penned and released, spearheaded by Fedor Lyass (Hardcore Henry). It condemned in the strongest terms their countries invasion of Ukraine and the brutality inflicted upon the Ukrainian people. It called for an end to their homeland’s military aggression against an independent state: ‘There is no geopolitic excuse, no goal of any kind that would justify taking human lives—don’t let propaganda convince you otherwise.’
In light of the severity on the ground in Ukraine, an open letter from the Russian film world calling out a despot seems like a minor event, an insignificant sacrifice. However, it is endemic for a state witnessing swathes of its people dissenting, despite crackdowns on anti-war protests, falsified media narratives and the banning of multiple social media platforms. What these cinematographers have done, among the over 110 signatories Mikhail Krichman (Loveless, Leviathan), Roman Vasyanov (Suicide Squad, Fury) and unsurprisingly Vladislav Opelyants (Leto, Petrov’s Flu), is placed their careers at risk for the sake of something greater; adding their considerable voice to those Russian people opposing the war. Opelyants’ frequent collaborator Kirill Serebrennikov is one of the many Kremlin-critical creatives censured by Russia for refusing to be silent in his work, long before this current act of brutality. For daring to present a Russian’s narrative unpalatable to state mandated ethos.
Serebrennikov and Opelyant’s last released collaboration, Petrov’s Flu has been having a quiet and stuttered release across the UK. Adapted from Alexey Salnikov’s novel Petrovy v Grippe, it follows the Petrov family as they navigate a highly metaphorical flu, while the outside world of Yekaterinburg falls into the grip of paranoia and epidemic. To sum it up in one word, Petrov’s Flu is weird. Staggeringly weird—of the kind not seen since maybe Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. The entire film a perfectly realised, flu-addled fever dream; hallucinatory and impulsive, looping over itself and the real world until the Petrov’s fever breaks, and an equally strange new narrative forms.
Deciphering something so psychologically trippy is a difficult task. But two reads are undeniable: an allegory comparing the effect of Russian state negligence, oppression and violence to the fear in the midst of a pandemic; and in its latter stages, a depiction of unexpected kindness born from times of difficulty. Petrov (Semyon Serzin), seeking clarity from the distortions and discomfort the flu fed him, leans heavily on a defining memory of his life. One that Serebrennikov, in a bold final act, recontextualises into something significantly insignificant. It deserves not to be spoilt, but the idea is that in one’s darkest hour, understanding and acting on what is good and right can have profound effects down the line.
Serebrennikov’s world feels tormented from our opening minutes in its presence, as if this is the natural state. As the flu hits, Petrov is dragged from a bus and forced by the military to help execute dissidents. His estranged wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova) flits between fantasies of intimacy and comfort and extremely violent outbursts against anyone who wrongs her, even her child. People on the streets hint towards past conditioning that’s led them to this place. All Petrov wants is to love his son, and keep him safe from the flu’s effects.
Serebrennikov and Opelyants blocking and choreography for scene-to-scene transitions is impeccable, and allows them to nail the numerous threads and extreme magical realist telling. And it is magnificently on display in a mid-film 18 minute one-take (in an honest feat for camera, lighting, grip, set-design teams and more; specific props to steadicam operator Alexander Vdovenko), covering an entire standalone arc for Petrov’s friend, Sergei/Seryozha (Ivan Dorn). That this also appears to be Petrov’s first name too is never commented upon solidly. Sergei is an aspiring writer with a homoerotic story based on his friend, that pushes the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable. Undeterred, he wishes for his story to be told. He is advised, and understands himself, that he has a choice between his voice and his life. He chooses his voice. And Petrov, flu-stricken and increasingly imbedded in ideas and matters of the state, takes the decision from him. He will be spared neither.
The cinematographers, the protestors of the streets on Russia, have chosen solidarity with Ukraine and the moral choice. They have chosen their voice.