Petrov’s Flu

I make a point of not reading anything about the films we’re showing as part of our Slavic film series before I watch them. The series has been organized by the Indiana Slavic department in collaboration with the Ryder Magazine and Film Series, in collaboration with the Byrnes Russian and East European Institute. Mostly this has worked very well, as after I see the film, take some notes, and come to a basic understanding of what I think it’s doing, I can find out what others have written and get the details right. In this case, I was surprised to find that I disagree with some of the most basic premises regarding how to approach the fifth film in our series, Petrov’s Flu (dir. Kirill Serebrennikov, 2021). My takes on the first four, Murina, EO, The Other Side of Everything, and Lunacy are here, here, here, and here.

First, here’s what’s on the Wikipedia page regarding the film’s plot:

Petrov is an auto mechanic in post-Soviet Yekaterinburg. He is separated from his wife, a librarian, and together they have a son. Just before the start of the new year, his family gets sick with the flu. Then he meets a trickster named Igor who can mix the world of the living and the dead. The Petrov family begin to suffer surrealistic hallucinations and the line between reality and hallucination begins to disappear.

That’s not correct. Or rather, I suppose that this could be a version of the plot, just not one I end up believing by the end of the film. Or the genre designation from the same source that calls it a “crime comedy-drama.” Well no, that’s not what I would call it, and I take my genre designations seriously: they condition the way we approach and interpret cultural phenomena, getting us ready to laugh, cry, think deeply, anticipate adventure, and so on. Calling it a crime anything takes one down a side path, as does calling it a drama of just about any variety. Another source I’m not remembering at the moment referred to it as science fiction, and that, too, seems off.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film that does a better job, it seems to me, of preparing viewers to make sense of it, or, since it comes later, helping them to understand the often baffling mixture of material they’ve been shown. In it, the character we’ve been following more or less, who is Petrov with his flu, walks into his apartment and moves around, the camera following or showing us what he appears to be seeing, such that we can see it is empty of others. This is where his family was earlier. It also looks a lot like the interior of a suicide Petrov “oversees” by a writer acquaintance, after which he (Petrov) burns the writer’s now posthumous manuscripts — this appears to be a favorite them of Russian artists!

Just then, outside the windows of the empty apartment, an enormous version of the character’s head (not sneezing or looking particularly sick) looks in through windows. In other words, the artist is looking in on the artist, witnessing his creative space, which serves as the setting for a family that also seems to be the subject of Petrov’s comic creations. Does Petrov have a family? Does Petrov have the flu? Did he actually witness a suicide and burn someone else’s creative work?

Or is what we’re seeing a multifaceted manifestation and productive mixture of fantasy and authorial insecurity (anxiety, fear of failure in the creative process)? Given the film’s fantastical flights — Petrov’s librarian “wife” occasionally turns into a blood crazed vigilante with super strength, an alien spacecraft takes up Petrov’s unconscious son, Petrov is physically yanked out of scenes and thrown into others, including at the very start of the film when he is handed a rifle to take part in a firing squad and then put back on the bus — suggest that these individuals are inside his head. He knows them because they are aspects of himself, creatures of his own fantasies, fears, and desires, conditioning his work as a creator of stories.

There is another crucial aspect to the creative process, however, and the film does not neglect it: memory. Here the several long black-and-white sequences filled with Soviet realia become especially poignant. They help to explain bizarre plot points (like why one character has several decades’ worth of aspirin), the relationships of characters, and also provide thematic connections to the notion of transformation and the new year.

The film is framed by New Year’s celebrations, with a threaded night on the town that I initially thought was going to link things together like Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow-Petushki, but I was wrong about that. It’s not even clear to me that the night in question “takes place” except in the creative-fantastical universe of the comic artist’s mind. But it has some of the same spirit as the Yerofeyev novel, and the long drunken spree provides linking material that is sometimes comic.

There is one other frame that provides a slightly darker mode, and that is the bus itself, on which Petrov is riding with other passengers at the start, passing through an outside space that appears to be in complete chaos. There are fires, riot police, fights, the firing squad noted above. On the bus are all sorts of people, including skiers with their skis, a nine-year-old girl who gives up her seat for an old misogynist, who proceeds to insult her and the woman sitting nearby, upon which a man begins to beat him. We could be in hell here or on the way there, with the gruff ferryman, a suggestion of Charon perhaps, asking for payment for the passage in coin.

The same bus ends the film, with similar associations but just one passenger, someone apparently trying to escape death, and the now rather demonic laughter of the conductor — the same one as earlier — ringing in one’s ears as the film’s final shot goes dark.

So what kind of film is it in the end? A fantasy of sorts, with comic aspects — I laughed at some of them, especially when the library reading group begins a knock-down drag-out fight over the merits of long versus short poems — but it’s dark and dystopian in its vision (think Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) and, probably as a result, doesn’t develop its characters beyond a superficial level. The film’s strengths lie elsewhere: in the weaving of memory, imagination, and creative anxiety together with myth, an ambivalent, somewhat bittersweet portrait of the Soviet past, and the grit of present-day provincial life in Russia.


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