We enter the mad reveries of a feverish Russian comic-book writer in this startling, chaotic, wintry waking nightmare from Kirill Serebrennikov (The Student, Leto), the Russian filmmaker and theatre director who recently spent several years under house arrest after running foul of his government and being convicted (many say falsely) of financial fraud. Don’t expect to understand all the fine details of this busy, barmy adventure: this is a dense, kinetic tour through the life and mind of Petrov (Semyon Serzin), who is coughing and sneezing from a virus (no, not that one) and is pulled off a bus at the beginning of the film and forced to execute a bunch of prisoners lined up against a wall. That's the first of a seemingless endless tumble of events and images that trip over each other as part of Serebrennikov’s murky, theatrical, surreal, highly-stylised vision – one based on a novel by Alexei Salnikov and which seems to be set mainly in the early 2000s going by the talk of Yeltsin having been deposed, although that’s not fully clear.
Yes, this is going to be a long, dark night (it feels like it’s always night) of the soul, and although Serebrennikov’s film revolves around just one day, our perspectives shift throughout, to other characters such as Petrov’s wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), a librarian who harbours a more sinister supernatural side (her eyes turn entirely black like something from a dark fantasy film), and to other time periods, such as when Petrov himself was a boy.
There’s a funeral van going around town with a coffin containing people who are still alive. There are scenes in the editorial office of a magazine called Hades. There are New Year’s Eve or Christmas parties in no less than three (or maybe two) time periods, and one of them seems to be from the warmer, less corrupted perspective of Petrov as a young boy, in happier times. For one section, we slip into black and white and we follow the story of another loosely-connected character – an entire day trip away from the main run of the film.
This is some flu: it plunges us into a deeply strange and unsettling version of reality. It’s undeniably confusing, but it leaves you with a powerful, if imprecise, feeling of a society that’s sick from something far worse than a passing virus.