‘Petrov’s Flu’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Kirill Serebrennikov (‘Leto,’ ‘The Student’) returns to the Croisette with his latest nostalgia-inflected meditation on life in Russia, adapted from a novel by Alexey Salnikov.

Having taken with Leto a nostalgic look back on the Soviet Union’s underground music scene in the 1980s, Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (The Student) delves further into a past that’s never forgotten, never really past with his latest, Petrov’s Flu. Based on a novel by Alexey Salnikov, The Petrovs in and Around the Flu, this hallucinatory, deeply confusing but skillfully executed and mesmeric work flows back and forth across time periods, parts of the city of Yekaterinburg and its characters’ memories, often literally within the space of a single shot. Serebrennikov originally staged a theater adaptation of the book for his Gogol Centre in Moscow, but it’s hard to imagine how this fluid, highly cinematic work of magical realism would even function on stage.

The superficial, diegetic reason for all the skipping around is presumably the fact that the central nuclear family of three named Petrov all have fevers and are a bit delirious. (Surely, the apostrophe should be on the right of the “s” in the title, to make this Petrovs’ Flu?) This being a product of the Russian avant-garde, there is surely a subtler, more symbolic agenda afoot. But for anyone up for a bit of surrealist dream logic and scenes crafted clearly to push the repressive state’s censorship buttons, like a make-out sequence between star Semyon Serzin and Ukrainian pop-star-turned-actor Ivan Dorn, then this is kind of a hoot and sometimes a moving exercise in nostalgia.

Petrov’s Flu

The Bottom Line

Oneiric but not onerous to watch.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yulia Peresild, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Yuriy Borisov, Ivan Dorn, Aleksandr Ilyin, Sergey Dreyden, Olga Voronina, Timofey Tribuntsev, Semyon Steinberg, Georgiy Kudrenko
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriter: Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the novel The Petrovs in and Around the Flu by Alexey Salnikov


2 hours and 25 minutes

The primary Petrov of the title, an ordinary man in his 30s (played with deadpan stillness by Leto‘s Semyon Serzin), is a garage mechanic by day and a graphic novelist at night in his spare time. In the first minutes of the film, he gets on a bus and starts coughing and sniffling in close proximity to the other passengers, a sequence in these COVID-aware times that will make many viewers feel uncomfortable. (The film was shot before the pandemic struck.)

But other than having a poor sense of personal hygiene, Petrov comes across as an Everyman, watchful, easygoing and hedonistic. Like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Petrov traverses the city and encounters old friends and new acquaintances, retracing routes he’s walked since childhood. As his temperature peaks and slows, he remembers back to when he was a kid in a still Soviet Russia in the 1970s, going to a fateful New Year’s Eve party with his own father (Ivan Ivashkin). The point-of-view sometimes passes on from Petrov to another character, like a virus caught in a sneeze, and we follow, for example, an actor (Yulia Peresild) hired to play the Snow Queen for the amusement of the costumed kids assembled at the party.

Meanwhile, Petrov’s librarian wife, known only as Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), appears to be in an entirely different genre of film. Although usually a regular woman who runs a household and keeps the library stacks restocked, periodically her eyes will become entirely black and she will exhibit strange vampiric behavior or have torrid sex on the floor of the library while a literary group nearby erupts into argument. Petrov and Petrova’s young son (Vladislav Semiletkov) muddles along as best he can, sleeping on the sofa under a UFO-shaped lamp, and sometimes it gets a bit blurry as to whether we’re watching Petrov’s son in roughly the present day or Petrov himself in the past.

Serebrennikov was arrested on questionable charges of embezzling state funds around the time he was shooting Leto and was given a suspended sentence that doesn’t permit him to leave the country, even though Petrov’s Flu is playing in competition in Cannes. That fact enhances his reputation as an artistic maverick, whose work certainly doesn’t conform to the current state’s taste for bland dramas, dumb comedies and patriotic fare.

Still, while Petrov’s Flu is certainly unorthodox in terms of technique and aesthetic boldness, and as mentioned previously features homosexual imagery that’s banned in Russia, it’s arguably a less politically radical film than his The Student from 2016, which more frontally critiqued reactionary mindsets. But then again, not every work from a dissident artist has to challenge authority; sometimes, just departing from the norms of realism is enough to make a film radical, and in this Petrov’s Flu succeeds emphatically. Credit is due especially to the typically polished contributions of several of Serebrennikov’s regular collaborators, particularly DP Vladislav Opelyants, whose swooping cinematography is an immersive experience all on its own.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yulia Peresild, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Yuriy Borisov, Ivan Dorn, Aleksandr Ilyin, Sergey Dreyden, Olga Voronina, Timofey Tribuntsev, Semyon Steinberg, Georgiy Kudrenko
Production companies: Hype Films, Charades Productions, Logical Pictures, Bord Cadre Films, Razor Film Production
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriter: Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the novel 'The Petrovs In and Around the Flu' by Alexey Salnikov
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Burya
Co-producers: Ilya Dzhincharadze, Elizaveta Chalenko, Eric Tavitian, Frédéric Fiore, Carole Baraton, Pierre Mazars, Yohann Comte, Constantin Briest, Roman Paul, Gerhard Meixner, Dan Wechsler, Jamal Zeinal-Zade, Andreas Roald, Olivier Père, Rémi Burah, Alexander Bohr
Director of photography: Vladislav Opelyants
Production designer: Vladislav Ogay
Costume designer: Tatyana Dolmatovskaya
Editor: Yuri Karih
Sound: Boris Voyt
Music: Aidar Salakhov

2 hours and 25 minutes

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