Locarno 2022 review: Petrol (Alena Lodkina)

“As a consequence of its multifaceted persona, Petrol leaps with grace between contrasting yet powerful influences.”

Eva is a young film student from Melbourne who aspires to become a director. When we meet her she seems stuck rather than stimulated by the numerous sources of potential creative inspiration blooming in her environment – her Australian life and her Russian roots (her family have emigrated from St. Petersburg, her parents and grandparents still speak Russian and not English as she does), her desire to make documentaries and her attraction to magical realism; all these clash instead of blend together. The turning point in Eva’s life and filmmaking could well be the appearance of Mia, an actress in the making whose sharp self-confidence and magnetic charisma are in sharp contrast with Eva’s shy and withdrawn personality. Mia gladly welcomes Eva as a roommate, while Eva has the idea to put Mia at the center of her graduation film.

Nevertheless, the relation between the two girls grows into something more indecisive than the predictable narrative paths of friendship, love, and betrayal. This enigmatic nature of Petrol, which writer and director Alena Lodkina skilfully manages to maintain from start to finish, has a lot to do with the fact that Mia’s entrance into the film, instead of an appearance, might have been more of an apparition. Maybe she does exist as a real person, or maybe only in Eva’s dream state, or yet again maybe she has been summoned to life by Eva’s tools to create art from reality – her boom mic, her camera, her editing table. The puzzle of Mia’s true nature is never to be solved, and the question is not even asked. Instead, reality, dream world and fictional worlds made up by cinema are experienced throughout Petrol as one flowing continuous state; or as a trail that leads into uncharted territory and turns, for one who agrees to follow it straight ahead and without over-rationalizing things, into an exciting promise to live a whole other kind of experience.

As a consequence of its multifaceted persona, Petrol leaps with grace between contrasting yet powerful influences. While the depiction of Eva’s everyday life, at film school and with her family, is in the vein of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (the indecisiveness of the character, but also the stillness of the frame, the composure in the expression of emotions, the muted colors), the dynamic of her duo with Mia strongly echoes with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The two women bring each other further and further down the dream, all the while not knowing whose dream it is, and yet not letting themselves get scared by the sudden alterations – through aesthetically inventive visions – of dream into nightmare. From there it is almost natural that the final act of the film swiftly and explicitly throws itself into the arms of another filmmaker so passionate about dreamers, and bewildering worlds halfway between here and yonder: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Lodkina does not seek nor need any pretext to go deep into the jungle with her characters, which proves to be the perfect setting – along with the kind of magical hotel / cabaret concealed in it – to bring her heartfelt and singular coming-of-age tale to an open-ended conclusion.