Petrov's Flu – Let Me Dream of You Again

What's mercurial Petrov's Flu (2021) about? The director Kirill Serebrennikov says it's a story of a man going through death and, mythologically predictable, rebirth. Christian myth of resurrection finds its own cornerstone in Russian reality – New Year – the day when one turn of a calendar ought to bring some cryptic new happiness.

by Marina Shchelokova


We meet Sergey Petrov (Semyon Serzin) in mid-December, just before the New Year. As if the time meant something in the movie. It is blurred and tumultuous. However, constant cold, blizzard, external discomfort, and internal malaise mixed with anticipation of change add up to the twisted Russian sense of festivity. Another part of it is so-called "Yolki" (Fir Trees, Russian Christmas show) – gatherings of children mostly in cheap homemade costumes entertained by low-paid exhausted actors repeating nearly identical scenarios over and over again. One of these is shown in an intercut series of Petrov's memories. A boy in a red sweater, politely referred to as a hockey player's costume (his mom apparently forgot to sew her son a real one), touches the hand of Snow Maiden (Julia Peresild). Cold, pale, hardly conscious, she scars young Petrov for the rest of his life. This pregnant Snow Maiden who has toxicosis brings a twisted mix of fantasy and reality into Petrov's life which stays there as unconstrained as in Russian reality in general.
Absurd, mystical, almost witching scenes can be a worthwhile sequel to Gogol's tradition. Darkness and horror are combined with warmth, humor, and acute social satire. Characters are trapped in a vicious circle of that kind. Past is reflected not only in the artistic language. The idea of nostalgia, the connection between generations, and repetition is ubiquitous in the movie. Every year comes to New Year and every year everything repeats itself. Every year there's the same play in the theatre of life. This play's name – "Russia". Serebrennikov calls it: "Groundhog Day, groundhog year, groundhog century."

Petrov relives his past. He makes love to a woman he's divorced with, he dreams of his childhood days, he's stuck drawing comics no one but his son sees. He's sick, everyone's sick. Everyone caught a virus of desperacy. How do you move forward? How does the country move forward? Ironically enough, Petrov Junior (Vladislav Semiletkov) gets cured by a pill from 1976. Embracing the past, the history, the ugliness, the Russia seems to work like a vaccine – you get infected to be healthy ever after.
The Phenomenon of Russia, its mentality, its culture, sits deep in the core of the movie. Serebrennikov attempted to film not prose but poetry – unique visual material. He told that he was majorly inspired by a group Cyberautism (Кибераутизм) which posts very specific images of Russia; its absurd and ugly beauty. In those images, he found the phrases which, written on the walls, create an independent text. "I was thinking of dying but now it seems okay", "You won't make it till the wedding" (this one is seen by untimely pregnant Snow Maiden), or a simple "Too bad", – the lines are scattered around the movie and radiate the threatening sense of predetermination. "Russia" is seen in a huge literature background of the movie. There are real poets on-screen (Yuliy Gogolev, Shish Bryansky, Andrew Rodoinov), legends (Mandelshtam, Asadov, Letov), modern poets-musicians (Husky, who plays a runaway corpse). Petrova (Chulpan Hamatova) identifies a maniac through literature (Marquis de Sade, books about concentration camps and gynecology). The specific attention to literature is also a way to reflect Russian culture – a very logocentric one.
Everyone in the movie has their flip side. Locksmith is an artist. A modestly dressed and worn-out librarian is a murderer with superhuman powers. Violence in Chulpan's character is as scary as casual it is presented. Only dark red water decanted from the washing machine reminds of the seriousness of the sin. Another scene – mind-blowing for its composure – is the suicide of the writer Petrov helps to perform. Another Sergey wants his death to become the act of art in the best Mayakovsky's tradition. Petrov pulls the trigger but then burns all the manuscripts destined for print. Looks like Petrov's murdering his own hopes at artistic self-fulfillment. Or tries to kill the tempting idea of posthumous recognition.
Petrov's Flu is a truly mystical picture. A novel by Alexey Salnikov published in 2016 has transformed into divination. Not only of the pandemic but of the terror of losing control, losing track of time and space, getting trapped and enslaved. But in this cage, there's space for bittersweet tenderness. There's a mother's impulse to kill her son but there's the terror of losing him. There's fighting, alcoholism, never-ending way home in the doom of public transport. But then there are father and son, both sick but both laughing and the tenderest and the saddest lines by Retuses in the background:

"I'm standing above the precipice,
I'm looking at you and I'm getting lost, oh, beautiful life,
If I've ever dreamt of you,
Let me dream of you again..."
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