He may be barred from leaving Russia and thus unable to travel to Cannes, but arthouse cinema favorite Kirill Serebrennikov is refusing to let that dampen his spirit ahead of the premiere of his latest movie, Petrov’s Flu, in the French fest’s Competition.
The filmmaker has been battling fraud charges in his home country for a number of years – charges which have been condemned by human rights organizations – but when Deadline catches up with him via video link to Moscow, he is relaxed, telling us he is happy that his new picture is getting out into the world after a long delay (it was due to screen at Cannes 2020), and to already be hard at work on his next feature.
Petrov’s Flu is a surreal journey through one man’s battle with the titular illness, and the irony of the film depicting such themes (the main character has a hacking cough throughout) having been made pre-pandemic is not lost of Serebrennikov. He also reveals which filmmaker in Cannes Competition this year was a “childhood inspiration” and, if it were up to him, would receive the Palme d’Or.
The movie is adapted from The Petrovs In and Around the Flu by Russian writer Alexey Salnikov. Producer was Ilya Stewart at Hype Film (we chatted to him earlier this week). Charades is handling sales. The Cannes premiere is on Monday 12th.
Deadline can also exclusively unveil a clip from the movie:
DEADLINE: Firstly, sorry you can’t make it to Cannes for your premiere.
SEREBRENNIKOV: I’m not allowed to leave Russia for some time, but the global situation is not good for traveling anyway. Russia is now in the red zone and the number of sick people here is very high. The vaccination rollout is going very slowly. First it’s my personal circumstances, then the virus situation, and then also I am shooting a film right now so I cannot afford to lose 10 days to quarantine.
DEADLINE: What’s the latest on your legal situation?
SEREBRENNIKOV: We need to wait. The situation is I’m working, it’s good. I’m shooting, it’s good. I have a lot of friends, it’s really good. That’s it.
DEADLINE: Am I correct in saying you are not under any form of house arrest?
SEREBRENNIKOV: No, thank god. It’s much easier now. I can work, that’s the main thing for me.
DEADLINE: I saw Petrov’s Flu late in the evening and then dreamt about it all night, and I’m still thinking about it today. There’s a lot to unpick there – walk us through your thought process behind making this movie.
SEREBRENNIKOV: The novel was highly acclaimed, it won all possible Russian literature awards. Ilya [Stewart, producer] bought the rights, but how do you work with this very strange book? It’s surreal and multi-layered, complicated, but extraordinary literature in terms of language. It’s such a pity that you can’t read it in its original language, it’s a masterpiece. So how to transform it into a movie?
I was under house arrest and Ilya told me, ‘you have a lot of time, could you think about how to do something with it?’ I jumped into it and it grabbed me completely. It is poetry, the author is a poet who started to write prose, the construction of the text is poetic – and cinema is poetry.
The producers loved the script and started to look for a director to make it. But then my circumstances changed, I was released, and I had time to work. And then my trial started, I said, ‘let’s do it anyway’. I had a month or two months without sleeping – part of the day was the trial and then we shot at night. The days were short. The crew and actors understood what was happening and helped a lot.
DEADLINE: How restrictive was that period? Were you able to shoot without concerns?
SEREBRENNIKOV: Russia is crazy, being here is high adrenaline. As Russians say, everything that won’t kill us makes us stronger. It gives us strength to overcome this situation and to work.
DEADLINE: The film has an unconventional narrative structure, does that come from the book or is that your interpretation?
SEREBRENNIKOV: It’s both really. It was an opportunity to put a special lens on our reality. The film covers several different times. Our childhood is mainly black and white (a portion of the film is shot in black and white), that’s visible in our family pictures. In my memory I have very bright moments and they are very colorful, that’s why I decided to add the third colorful layer from the point of view of Petrov as a child. Different times and different feelings.
DEADLINE: Is it funny watching Petrov’s Flu in the context of the pandemic? I found all of his coughing, in public places, really jarring for at least 20 minutes.
SEREBRENNIKOV: It’s shocking because they’re all without masks. Even for me, I’m watching it and wondering why they aren’t wearing masks. But it was made before corona times, it was just about the flu and the feeling of high temperature.
DEADLINE It’s interesting how films take on new context in the time they’re release in…
SEREBRENNIKOV: Of course.
DEADLINE: This film was ready for Cannes last year I understand.
DEADLINE: Was the thinking always to wait a full year for Cannes, or were you tempted to take it elsewhere, or premiere it online?
SEREBRENNIKOV: We had a good relationship with Cannes, and they asked us to wait, so we decided to wait.
DEADLINE: Do you see it as purely a theatrical film?
SEREBRENNIKOV: We did it for theaters. But nobody knows and everything is very unpredictable.
DEADLINE: So a Netflix deal could happen?
SEREBRENNIKOV: You never know, but Netflix has its own agenda in Russia, as far as I know they buy something different from Petrov’s Flu, something more positive and colorful.
DEADLINE: Would you say the film has an overall message?
SEREBRENNIKOV: It’s not good for me to make the interpretation, it’s your job and the job for the audience to find the meaning. I am so happy that you felt any connection to the film because it’s very Russian, very specifically Russian, it’s not even a Moscow film it’s about far Russia, people who love their self-identification, nostalgia. I’m very happy that people from other countries and point-of-views can get something from it.
DEADLINE: Do you think Spike Lee will like it?
SEREBRENNIKOV: No idea! For me the competition is really strong this year. It’s one of the best lists for years. All my feelings are with Paul Verhoeven. I want to give him all the awards and prizes. He is someone who inspired me in childhood. His films I watched in my early youth and he showed me a new version of cinema. I really appreciate him and want to give all possible global prizes to this extraordinary artist.
DEADLINE: Will you be appearing at Cannes at all virtually?
SEREBRENNIKOV: If they ask me I definitely will.
DEADLINE: Tell me about your this movie you’re working on now.
SEREBRENNIKOV: It’s a 19th century story about a girl who loves a musician. They need to overcome the regulations and rules of the 19th century to prove their love. It’s a special Russian period, the period of Tchaikovsky.
DEADLINE: You’re not going to make Cannes this year, you were unable to make Cannes for Leto in 2018 – will you make Cannes for this next one?
SEREBRENNIKOV: [Laughs] Nobody knows. I don’t think about it at all. When we shot Leto, nobody thought about Cannes or other international festivals – we thought, who would be interested in Soviet rock and roll? And it became one of the most successful foreign films in France that year. The same with Petrov’s Flu, nobody knew it could be taken to this amazing festival. For me the main thing is to be in Cannes and show the film for the first time to such an important international audience and to get feedback. Each opinion is very important.