Three years after his musical drama “Leto” bowed on the Croisette, Kirill Serebrennikov returned to Cannes’ main competition with “Petrov’s Flu,” a deadpan, hallucinatory romp through a post-Soviet Russia in the grips of a mysterious flu epidemic, which is adapted from an award-winning 2018 novel by Alexei Salnikov. The film screens this month at Sarajevo Film Festival.
Serebrennikov, however, wasn’t able to walk the red steps outside Cannes’ famed Lumiere Theater for the film’s premiere. The 51-year-old helmer is banned from leaving Russia, after being sentenced in June 2020 to a three-year suspended prison sentence and issued a fine over a case of embezzlement, on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges.
This year marks the second no-show on the Croisette for the Russian director, after he was forced to skip the 2018 premiere of “Leto” while under house arrest. It was around that time that he was approached to write the script for “Petrov’s Flu,” which was filmed as Serebrennikov stood trial in a Moscow court — an experience he described as living “parallel lives.”
The film, which was produced by Ilya Stewart of Hype Film and is being sold by Charades, was ready for a Cannes 2020 premiere before the coronavirus pandemic upended those plans. It also made “Petrov’s Flu” eerily prescient, as lead Semyon Serzin coughs and hacks his way through a fever dream born of Serebrennikov’s delirious imagination.
The acclaimed stage and film director did not sit idly in the interim, brushing up on his German, remotely mounting a production of Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera, and getting to work on his next feature, a period drama set in 19th-century Russia about a girl who falls in love with a musician.
Speaking to Variety, Serebrennikov opened up about living with fear and making the most out of solitude, quipping about serving his house arrest long before the world went into lockdown: “I had my own story about isolation. Now it’s a global trend. I’m like a pioneer of isolation.”
How did you get involved with “Petrov’s Flu”?
I was hired to write the script. And I started to read the [novel on which the film is based] and understand how to take this very complicated Russian contemporary literature and turn it into a movie. In the process, I fell in love with this story, because I found a lot of it very personal. And when I finished the script, I didn’t want to give it to somebody else.
What did you see in it?
From my point of view, it’s a very Russian movie, and a very personal film about our fears: Soviet and post-Soviet fears, and about people who had the same childhood. But [Cannes] choosing our movie for the competition shows that people from different cultures and from different experiences have something in common, and they can feel the same fears and have the same feelings about being alone, about being connected to something unbelievable and feared and strange.
You’re making a movie about Russia in the time of a mysterious flu. And then, by this eerie coincidence, the world is struck by a mysterious flu. Did that have any influence on the film?
It’s always very complicated to think ahead. You can’t think ahead, you can only feel ahead. I always say that the movie shoots itself; it’s not me who shoots the movie. The film grabs from reality, from the universe, what it wants.
You were on trial in a Moscow court as you were shooting this film. What was that like?
It was kind of parallel lives. Morning till afternoon, I [was in court]. In the night I came to the pavilion and to the locations and filmed this story. It was a time without sleeping at all, but the film process helped me not to think about all this absurd, Kafkan process.
You haven’t been allowed to leave Russia since 2017. What are your plans for the day you can?
I hope when the whole world will be able to travel, I’ll join the whole world. [Under house arrest] I had my own story about isolation. Now it’s a global trend. I’m like a pioneer of isolation.
What’s been your advice to people coping with that during the pandemic?
Learn languages you never even planned to learn. Now you have time to read the biggest books. Watch movies you never saw before. Ring someone by phone and try to renew connections with people from your previous life. Then you have enough time to come up to the mirror and say, “Hi, me,” and ask the main questions to yourself, and try to get the main answer about yourself.
Did you take your own advice?
I started to learn German. I worked on a lot of music and wrote new operas. I read really huge books I bought years ago that were laying in the far corners of my flat. And I asked myself very important questions that I tried to answer frankly. Focusing on yourself is not really bad. Sometimes it opens a lot of new sources for the future, for the next step in your life. You need to find something really good in this isolation. And it’s possible.