March 30th 2023

The appeal of movies is partly in how they exercise our facility for interpretation. By tuning our attention to their particular forms and rhythms, films reward us with revelations of meaning that are largely absent from everyday life. Alena Lodkina’s Petrol (2022) imposes this impulse for noticing and decoding on both its audience and protagonist. Eva (Nathalie Morris) is a film student living in Melbourne. At a party, she meets Mia (Hannah Lynch), a magnetic, mysterious artist who becomes a friend and the subject of her new film. As the two women’s relationship develops and mutates, so too do the boundaries between art and life, magic and pragmatism, dream worlds and reality. Eva is driven by the possibility that in life, as in a movie, meaning can be manifested, deciphered, and resolved. Maintaining this faith may be what makes someone an artist; beguiling an audience with Petrol’s level of ingenuity is certainly what makes a good film.

Petrol behaves less like a classic narrative than a swarm of details and linkages that engage viewers in games and surprises. The film is thick with direct references and allusions, winks that layer the story and keep us guessing. Filmmaking is a kind of wizardry in Petrol. Lodkina uses the basic tools of montage and sound design to conjure spells, spook and hypnotize her characters, and summon impossible visions. Beyond its own form, the film contains a whole inventory of sorcery. It places ghosts, tea leaves, and Ouija alongside psychiatry, biology, and quantum physics as equally valid yet incomplete methods for making sense of the world.

Many scenes have a gliding quality that replaces routine logistics with surreal, seamless flow. But Petrol is grounded enough for sharp observations about the tiresome social dynamics Eva encounters in Mia’s scene. This hip, arty crowd seems to thrive on vanity and manipulation, either dismissing Eva or leeching off her for affirmation. A related thread considers how clothes influence social presentation and sense of self. They often serve as an aspirational tool in the story, a way to slip into another identity, or to transform one’s mood and character from the outside in.

Eva’s film professor insists that to break from conventions one must learn them. But neither Eva nor Lodkina seem convinced that this platitude has anything to do with true creative experimentation. “It’s impression,” Eva says, explaining a piece to her class; it exists “between reality and interpretation.” Liminal spaces like this one, at the borders of fantasy, realism, abstraction, and play, are where Petrol locates its seductive ambiguity.

Petrol screens tonight, March 30, and on April 1, at Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art as part of New Directors/New Films 2023. Director Alena Lodkina will be in attendance at both screenings for Q&As.