Time’s tricks: fantasy and reality in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu first published by Klassiki
Time moves in mysterious ways in Petrov’s Flu, written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov (The Student, 2016; LETO, 2018). It opens – as indeed it ends – with a smiling conductress (Irina Vybornova) on a Yekaterinburg trolleybus in the build-up to New Year’s Eve. “What if I’m the Snow Maiden?” she says of her tinselly seasonal costume. Her words evidently lodge in the mind of coughing passenger Seryozha Petrov (Semyon Serzin), who is suffering from flu, and whose febrile hallucinations over the next two or so days will include a recurrent journey down memory lane to a childhood encounter, 28 years earlier, with another woman dressed as the Snow Maiden. “Are you real?”, the little Seryozha (Artem Yanenko) had asked this magical woman (in fact named Marina and played by Yulia Peresild) at a school New Year’s party. He had had a fever then too. And now, as he takes his own young son (Vladislav Semiletkov), also feverish, to a similar school New Year’s party, Seryozha’s own history keeps coming back to him.
The question of what is real and what is not will pervade Serebrennikov’s film. Even that opening sequence will show, in a single, unbroken take, Seryozha being ushered off the trolleybus and made to join an impromptu firing squad that shoots dead in the street a group of captive élite citizens. This massacre does not actually take place anywhere but in Seryozha’s feverish imagination, moments after he has heard an angry fellow traveller (Andrey Rodionov) complaining about the post-Soviet dispensation expressly created by ‘Old Gorby‘, Yeltsin, Berezovsky and ‘these guys’, and concluding, “All those currently holding power should be shot!” Yet the fluidity of the long take tricks the mind of the viewer, so that we share Seryozha’s internalised experiences as a confusing cinematic fever dream.
It is a trick that Serebrennikov will pull off again and again, making wild leaps in time and space, and between reality and fantasy, often all in a single take, denying us the cuts that are the usual markers of such spatiotemporal shifts and ruptures. Seryozha’s many visions, as he readily slips into memories and reveries, or into scenarios from the comic books that he himself writes or from the (semi-fictional) short stories that his author friend Sergei (Ivan Dorn) has penned, have a disorienting effect, disrupting our grip on what is real. When, after a long night of drinking and delirium spent on the town (and in a hearse) with his friend Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), Seryozha finally staggers home, his ex-wife Nurlinsa (Chulpan Khamatova) will openly question whether Igor even exists (“Is he even a real person, or is he your imaginary friend?”). Yet Nurlinsa also has the ‘flu, and experiences hallucinations of her own. When she is not fantasising sex with Seryozha at the library where she works, she imagines being variously a kick-ass avenger (“I saw it in the movies”) and a knife-wielding serial killer (inspired by a news item from the television).
Seryozha’s feverish flashbacks range from the overtly subjective to the wildly unreliable. The former category includes his memories of childhood, presented as colour POV shots in a soft-focus, home-movie-style Academy ratio; while the latter includes a single (and singular) take in which Seryozha meets Sergei, then becomes a gay character loosely based on himself in a fanciful short story written by Sergei, and finally shoots Sergei in the mouth as part of an assisted suicide (despite later assuring his son, “I haven’t killed anyone”). A lengthy flashback sequence coming late in the film is something different. Shown in crisp widescreen black and white, it offers the backstory of Seryozha’s original Snow Maiden Marina, and ties together the fates of several other characters – Igor, his friend Viktor Mikhailovich (Aleksandr Ilyin) and Seryozha himself – in obscure and unexpected ways that none of them quite appreciates. Yet for all its apparent objectivity, this sequence too filters its events through Marina’s point-of-view, surreally undressing its male characters in her eyes only.
So in Petrov’s Flu, the past is a territory as distant as, say, Australia (a country which Marina, hilariously, describes as “a Nevyansk-like continent”, alluding to her small-town home in the Urals) – indeed, not just distant but distorted and easily idealised. Seryozha’s first flashback to his home life may be bathed in the radiant glow of nostalgia, with the nudity of both his smiling mother (Varvara Shmykova) and father (Ivan Inashkin) suggestive of an Edenic innocence – but that contrasts with his second flashback, where his parents are remembered (and shown) in an altogether less rose-tinted light, now both fully clothed, and viciously arguing. The man complaining on the trolleybus in the opening scene may hanker for the old Soviet days when everyone “used to get free vouchers to a sanatorium every year – it was for the good of the people,” but his romantic view of history is rooted in racism and anti-Semitism (“now, it’s the Tajiks and Jews who actually rule this country”). Meanwhile a respectable-seeming old man (Alexander Kuznetsov) who boards the same trolleybus proves a diehard misogynist, telling the seven-year-old girl who has given up her seat for him, “All you bitches are the same.” Here the past, and those who come from it, are not without their problems.
New Year’s Eve is of course a time not just for reviewing the past, but also taking stock of the present and looking forward to the future. With its events structured around two end-of-year celebrations, the one in 1971, the other in 1999, Petrov’s Flu straddles a Russia in transition from its Soviet to its post-Soviet periods, from a time when office walls were festooned with images of the hammer and sickle, when landlines were a luxury, and when the state Party and the local union dominated all, to a different era when the children all have their own mobile phones and come dressed in the heroic guises of Western capitalism (Spider-Man, Superman, Sonic the Hedgehog). Characters here do look forward. Sergei lays out for himself a grim future of marriage, misery and the inevitable abandonment of his art – before opting for suicide instead, only to have his plans for a posthumous published life cruelly taken away. Similarly Marina, pregnant with possibility, anticipates a marital trap and decides instead on abortion – although we know from what Viktor has said earlier that she had since changed her mind, and fled with her son to Australia “when the USSR collapsed”, forging a new future (in exile).
At the same time, the film’s narrative present is now in the past. For while the adult Seryozha’s oneiric odyssey unfolds in 1999, Alexey Salnikov wrote his novel The Petrovs In and Around The Flu almost two decades later in 2017, and Serebrennikov only started adapting it in 2019, while under house arrest on charges that have been connected to his earlier outspokenness about Vladimir Putin‘s government. Though never actually named, Putin haunts the film. After all, 1999 was the year when Putin became both Prime Minister and acting President in Russia, with a long political future ahead of him that would change the country forever – and Viktor’s drunken rantings about the nation’s broken electoral system are an obvious criticism of what was to come. The future, though, can never quite be foreseen. Despite all the coughing and spluttering in Petrov’s Flu, Serebrennikov’s shoot finished in January of 2000, just before the Covid breakout that it – entirely accidentally – appears to be prophesying. Global plagues aside, though, this is a sick trip through Russian history, conveyed via various modes of infernal transport – trolleybus, bus, car, lift, hearse, UFO – where the past finds ways to come miraculously back to life.
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