Kirill Serebrennikov really, really needs you to know that he’s got talent. After spending nearly 20 months under house arrest (and doesn’t that sound familiar), the provocative Russian director stepped back behind the camera for “Petrov’s Flu,” an alternately exhilarating and exhausting film that premiered in competition on Monday at the Cannes Film Festival.
While early predictors pegged the title – which follows a family and city reeling from a mysterious new respiratory illness (hey, wait a minute!) and comes from a director who has become something of an international icon for artistic freedom in the face of government repression – as a leading Palme d’Or contender, those calculations might change a step or two now that the film has screened.
Make no mistake, “Petrov’s Flu” is a formidable piece of filmmaking; it is also an exercise in style that uses its own virtuoso technique as a blunt-force tool against the audience. An abrasive tour through a post-Soviet heart of darkness, “Petrov’s Flu” practically dares the viewer to embrace it, knowing full well there’s too much sheer craft on display for anyone to look away.
If the word “dreamlike” might be the single most overused adjective in film criticism, in this case, our hands are forced. Because throughout its opening act, the film operates on a fever-dream register that recreates a certain kind of liminal headspace as assuredly as any film that’s ever come before.
We follow ashen cartoonist Petrov (Semyon Serzin) as he ambles through the streets of Yekaterinburg after coming down with this latest disease. Barreling from city bus to dive bar to grunge abode with the same somnambulistic fluidity that the director uses as he toggles fantasy and reality, “Petrov’s Flu” never stops moving, opening with a 45-minute volley of VFX-assisted long takes that move from the dream world to real life and then back again.
Also struck with this same malady, the lead’s wife, Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), experiences her own heady mix of sex- and violence-tinged hallucinations, though the film doesn’t quite offer a visual out until the couple’s fevers break about halfway through, and the form assumes a more conventional approach. Newly on the mend, the couple must immediately contend with their young son, who has also fallen ill, and in a fierce way at that.
Whereas up until this point the film had played with a fish-eye lens, blurred edges and a green formica visual aesthetic that made it feel like the evil twin to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie,” the harsh colors soon ease once their fevers break and parental duties take over.
But after so much time cooped up, Serebrennikov is a restless sort, and soon enough the film finds new stylistic registers to explore, dedicating its third act to a kind of stylistic “Rashomon” that explores a pivotal moment in the young Petrov’s life from two very different lenses. Seen, quite literally, from his point of view, the film depicts a small moment he shared with an actress hired to perform a Christmas pageant. The film then doubles back and tells the story from her angle, becoming a nearly 30-minute standalone narrative that employs a romantic black-and-white look reminiscent of Serebrennikov’s 2018 Cannes contender “Leto,” before swinging back to the leads for the film’s tail end.
If it all sounds like a lot – well, it very much is. But in that sense, it also very much incarnates a certain post-lockdown hunger for experience and possibility. That the film was made with last year’s aborted festival in mind only adds another layer of wicked Russian irony.