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Petrov’s Flu ★★★★★



Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Stars: Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yuri Kolokolnikov

Released: London Film Festival 2021

Throughout the past three decades, Kirill Serebrennikov has established himself as the de facto Enfant terrible of the Russian art scene: between his aggressive stance on the state of law enforcement in Playing the Victim (2006) and the more recent efforts to adapt the tragic fate of Nureyev on stage, Serebrennikov is arguably the most prolific theatre and film director of the New Russian Cinema. His uncompromisingly combative style created a distinctly dissident voice amid the tumultuous political landscape — a feat that single-handedly ruined his commercial career and banned from appearing at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Serebrennikov’s latest leap into the depths of the Russian mentality, Petrov’s Flu, is simultaneously his most belligerent and discordantly bittersweet work to date.

Adapted from Alexey Salnikov’s wonderfully unhinged novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu, the film frames its central narrative around an ordinary Yekaterinburg family: Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is a car mechanic stuck perpetually drinking and dreaming of the comic book world he’s made for his child, while his librarian wife Nurlinisa (Chulpan Khamatova) is struggling to juggle her thankless job and care for the ungrateful prepubescent son. However, this incessant cycle of mundanity metamorphoses into a psychedelic venture through time and space once the entire city becomes sick with an oddly virulent type of flu.

It’s quite strange to experience something as openly confrontational and eerily timely as Petrov’s Flu amid an ongoing pandemic. Of course, this is merely an unfortunate coincidence, but the sheer terror of the film lies less in its depiction of a virus and more in its connotations for the modern Russian reality: a nation forced into traditionalism, stuck within the confines of a never-ending cycle of repressed feelings and broken dreams. It’s no coincidence that Salnikov chose such a common Slavic last name for his titular family — there were Petrovs before and there are bound to be Petrovs after.

Much like the source material, Serebrennikov’s film utilizes elements of magical realism to convey the ever-changing mind of Petrov. From his deep homoerotic desires to the unalloyed fatherly love for his son, it’s this psychoanalytical complexity that drives the narrative across bumpy Russian roads, eventually leading into the past where Petrov’s Flu finds its intrinsically Slavic, emotionally rich catharsis. Just like in Leto, Serebrennikov once again reminisces of the bygone days, framing those vivid memories of the USSR through the lens of childhood sincerity: tender moments of parental love, that sense of wonder upon seeing a tram on a snowy street, a New Year’s Eve utrennik event with tired theatre actors reenacting the same Father Christmas/Snegurochka routine — and yet, the flu is already here, permeating even the most innocent mementoes with sinister discomfort. The entire nation has been somnambulantly sick practically since birth, it’s just a matter of time until the flu resolutely breaks you.

This brazenly provocative brand of contemporary Russian cinema is one that frequently values formal control and unfiltered militancy over its empathetic values — something Serebrennikov seems to have come around on since the unbearably bleak days of Playing the Victim. The Petrovs aren’t an irreparably broken family, nor does the dead body of rapper Husky stay truly dead after all. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Serebrennikov critiques the morbidly corrupt administration without losing that bittersweet love for the people who inhabit the nation. If you’re still creating this kind of art from within the totalitarian state by the time you’ve reached your fifties— that’s a selfless, humanistic act of cultural revolt in and of itself.

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