It’s been two years since iconoclastic Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov was released from a 20-month period of house arrest on embezzlement charges widely considered to have been trumped up by the government. If things haven’t been plain sailing since then — the revived case ended in a suspended sentence last year, confining the director to his home country — he has at least been free to roam, work and film in Russia. Cue “Petrov’s Flu,” Serebrennikov’s first feature since his release, and a consummate answer to the admittedly niche question of just what kind of film one makes after such a period of confinement: one that moves as freely and recklessly as possible, untethered by short-leash rules of time, space or storytelling.
Tearing at a mile a minute through an extravagantly surreal vision of Yekaterinburg in the maddening grip (or grippe, if you will) of a flu epidemic, “Petrov’s Flu” is a rowdy, exhilarating return to top form for Serebrennikov. His last film, the eccentric rock biopic “Leto,” may have marked his first time in competition at Cannes (this, sure enough, is his second) but wasn’t among his more kinetic works. His latest more than makes up the difference: Unprepared viewers may get whiplash from its rollicking escalation of scenes and violent switch-ups in perspective and narrative focus, which nonetheless all work toward a clear metaphoric expression of deranged social unrest and negligent leadership. The accidental resonance of its pandemic storyline might up commercial interest in what is nonetheless a challenging, acquired-taste proposition: Some will thrill to its fevered brilliance, while others may feel they’re being waterboarded with Smirnoff.
In a story that ostensibly spans a day — but also zooms elastically through memories and dreams — our weary shepherd through much of the heaving insanity is jaded mechanic and comic book artist Petrov, marvelously played by Semyon Serzin with a slumped, hangdog demeanor that doesn’t appear to have shifted in years. It is New Year’s Eve, and we encounter him on a sardine-packed tram, swaddled in muddy, puffy winter layers, coughing to a degree that could make a COVID-era audience physically recoil from the screen. “You look like you have cancer,” a fellow passenger unhelpfully observes.
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It’s just flu, he insists, and that certainly doesn’t make him special. Everyone in this shapeless, luckless, far-from-Moscow city seems to have it in some form or another: Illness has apparently been absorbed into the very fabric of daily life in this world, just an extra layer of society’s pervasive discontent. There are no masks here, much less any social distancing, as Serebrennikov crams the frame with clashing human activity. Petrov trudges through slushy, bustling streets to work, repeatedly distracted and waylaid by conversation and conflict; in the background, passing pedestrians have wild sidewalk seizures, while groups of civilians are incidentally gunned down without comment. This is all normal: Who has time to complain about a cold?
Across town, his wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova) appears to make a more sedate living as a librarian, overseeing a poetry discussion group — until the meeting turns absurdly abusive, upon which Petrova’s eyes go black, her body forgets gravity and she beats the offending party to a pulp. While her husband sketches comics in his meager spare hours, he may or may not be aware that he’s married to an actual, avenging superhero, taking down violent men where necessary — though of course she, too, has the flu. As a couple, they’re more ordinary together than apart, fussing and bickering in the matchbox apartment they share with their young son — the only person excited, apparently, by the prospect of a new year, as his parents strain to get him to a chintzy neighborhood celebration.
The party, as is Russian custom, sees hordes of kids donning costumes and jostling to exchange germs and gifts, doled out by adults dressed as Father Frost and the Snowmaiden. It’s a less surreal set-piece than most in “Petrov’s Flu,” if no less cacophonous and abrasive, and it proves the unlikely portal into Serebrennikov’s most radical and unexpected pivot — as the period and characters change, Vladislav Opelyants’ gangrenous, vertigo-inducing lensing turns to warm, moody monochrome, and another film altogether takes charge for an extended period. How these two films and dimensions interlock is the most satisfying of the script’s various mini-puzzles to solve, not least because the eventual overlap makes for an uncharacteristically tender spot in an otherwise aggressively hard-headed exercise.
Adapting Alexey Salnikov’s locally celebrated novel “The Petrovs In and Around the Flu,” Serebrennikov hits on a relentless freight-train register for the film that draws influence from the dense grotesquerie of certain Russian literature and the heightened, thinly veiled political satire of his own theater work at Moscow’s Gogol Center. The screenplay doesn’t get specific about its anti-government targets, and doesn’t need to: This is a work driven by swollen, all-encompassing, sometimes hilarious fury at a general place and way of living, one its director is currently legally forbidden from leaving. Through its heady stew of impulses and influences, however, “Petrov’s Flu” is cinema to the breathless last, riding the camera like a bucking horse as single shots carry us between locations, eras and states of mind — the thrilling, messy work of a man released.