Kirill Serebrennikov is the Russian theatre and film director whose work now makes its second appearance in the Cannes competition, and who, for the second time, has been effectively forbidden from coming in person, owing to his status as a courageous anti-government protester. For his previous film, Leto, he was under house arrest, and he now has a suspended sentence for charges that are clearly politically motivated. He is a remarkable figure, and it would have been agreeable to give a warm greeting to this already much admired, frenetically energetic new film, based on a novel by Russian author Alexei Salnikov, The Petrovs in and Around the Flu.
It is set in a post-Soviet Rusland in the grip of a flu epidemic and complete social breakdown, with people muttering how things were better before the country was ruined by “Gorby” and then finished off by Yeltsin. The narrative motif of a flu epidemic is shrewd and prescient, and the “flu symptom hallucination” imagery is fierce.
But for all its obvious bravura technique, I found this film indigestible, overextended and weirdly oppressive. The relentlessness of it made me think of a downbeat version of Emir Kusturica, the Serbian director who specialises in a similar kind of high-voltage film-making.
Semyon Serzin plays Petrov, a weary and very ill comic book artist whom we initially see slumped on a crowded and non-socially distanced tram. He stumbles off this grisly mode of transport and instantly finds himself in the midst of a surreally scary scene of unrest. A secret policeman puts an automatic weapon into his hand and he has to participate in an execution of prisoners – but the moment passes so quickly it is impossible to tell whether it was a dream or waking reality.
Petrov’s wife, Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), is a hardworking librarian, but she has a secret: under emotional pressure, her eyes turn demonically black and she turns into something between a supervillain and a serial killer, slaughtering people she doesn’t like with superhuman strength. And she has dark and unhappy thoughts for much of the time, at one stage fantasising about murdering her own son.
The Petrovs, their son and their friends are at the centre of a dizzying, boiling, bewildering urban nightmare, intercut with disquieting flashback sequences appearing to show Petrov’s parents in their youth. No one could doubt the technical mastery of this movie and its formal audacity. But for all that, I found something unliberating in its mercurial restlessness. In werklikheid, it sometimes seemed to me that for two and a half hours it imitated the non-surreal, non-imaginative feeling of actually having flu: the listlessly simmering temperature, sweatiness and discomfort in a highly decorated but airless sickroom.