When the phantasmagoric “Petrov’s Flu” opens on a crowded bus — a nightmare of jostling, babbling our bodies — it appears apparent that there’s extra troubling its hero than a typical seasonal illness. Sweaty and unsteady, he navigates by the opposite surging, grumbling passengers. Then a person yanks him off the bus, somebody arms him a gun and Petrov is immediately in a firing squad mowing down prisoners — after which he will get again on the bus and rejoins the clamorous horde he by no means wholly escapes. Welcome to Russia!
For the subsequent two and a half hours on this droll, chaotic, fitfully dazzling film (it was on the 2021 Cannes Movie Pageant), Petrov (Semyon Serzin) continues to sweat and stagger as he roams a derelict city panorama. Feverish and sometimes plastered, he’s in dangerous form, and so is his world, with its ominous faces, soupy gloom and rowdy human comedy. His motive for rambling isn’t apparent. However as he wanders, he retains slipping into outlandish reveries amid assembly mates, consuming and consuming some extra. It’s unclear at first whether or not he’s in search of to flee actuality or whether or not it’s eluding him.
A lot of what occurs in “Petrov’s Flu” is deliberately and enjoyably destabilizing. It takes place over a reasonably compressed interval of a day or two (possibly!), however contains a number of lengthy flashbacks that broaden the general time-frame by many years. And whereas the story is comparatively easy — Petrov travels by a wierd, at occasions hellish realm, evoking Odysseus and Leopold Bloom of their respective underworlds — the filmmaking is richly imaginative and unbound by the standard time-and-space constraints. When Petrov enters one location, he generally exits someplace solely totally different.
In recent times, the director Kirill Serebrennikov has been greatest identified overseas for his difficulties with the Russian authorities. In 2017, he was positioned underneath home arrest, accused of embezzling round $2 million. The costs have been seen as retaliation from the Kremlin for each Serebrennikov’s work and his expressed views on, amongst different points, Russian censorship, the nation’s aggression overseas and its persecution of lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender folks. He was placed on trial and sentenced, however in March, after the remaining sentence was suspended, Serebrennikov fled to Germany, the place he stays.
It’s exhausting to not take this historical past into consideration whereas watching “Petrov’s Flu,” which paints a bleak, wistful, tragically humorous portrait of a person, a folks, a world. But regardless of the grimness, the violence and the grotesque bleating of some hateful, prejudiced trolls, the film by no means drags you down (although it would exhaust you) as a result of it’s buoyed by Serebrennikov’s bravura, unfettered filmmaking. Because the gorgeously stressed digicam travels alongside Petrov — as partitions disappear and areas soften into each other — it begins to really feel like each the character and director try to think about a means out.
As Petrov goals and boozes and meanders, a sketchy portrait of him emerges. He has a household, although it’s difficult. He says he’s divorced however refers to his ex, Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), as his spouse. Like Petrov, she too experiences lurid, vicious fantasies. The pair have a younger son, and all three appear to dwell within the condominium the place Petrov attracts comics. He and Petrova additionally sleep collectively, having intercourse that turns uneasily aggressive and, at one level, evokes Petrov to get away from bed and draw. A number of the comedian panels he’s engaged on appear to reflect what occurs onscreen.
A part of what provides the film its pressure and kick is that it’s not at all times clear how a lot of what transpires is going on in Petrova’s and Petrov’s heads. The film is predicated on the Russian novel “The Petrovs In and Across the Flu,” by Alexey Salnikov. Regardless of the English-language title, the film recurrently shifts from Petrov to Petrova, who additionally experiences hallucinations. These happen throughout fraught, irritating encounters with different folks. She pauses, as if possessed, her eyes briefly blacken, and she or he wreaks horrible violence: She pummels one man’s face and slits one other individual’s throat.
Whether or not these darkish ideas originate in Petrov or Petrova appears inappropriate. What issues is that these frenzied visions recurrently engulf the characters — and the film — transporting them from their on a regular basis brutish actuality into an equally brutish fantasy world. Asleep or not, they’re dreaming, however their goals are nightmares which are, by turns, creative and liberating, grotesque and suffocating. At the least Petrov flashes again to his comparatively pacific childhood, a interval of sunshine and tenderness, a time earlier than Russia’s present regime. And naturally Petrov is an artist, which I think about is lastly his salvation as a lot as it’s for the wildly gifted Serebrennikov.
Not rated. In Russia and English, with subtitles. Working time: 2 hours 25 minutes. In theaters.