Listen, anything that has to do with Russia is controversial these days and I don’t need any of that. The question of whether all Russian films should be boycotted at international film festivals, for example, is a difficult one that I’m in no position to answer. Cannes took a stance, though, by including acclaimed theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov’s latest period drama TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE in its competition lineup and screening it first out the gate. Having now seen the film, I’ll just say that it deserves to be there and the programmers would not have been doing a very good job if they had turned it down. Clocking in at 143 minutes, it’s neither the easiest nor the breeziest watch, but its investigation of a troubled relationship carries such a unique perspective it proves as unsettling as it is unsparingly enlightening.
Set in late 19th century, the film tells the marriage story between the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Miliukova. The two meet at a party where the significantly older Tchaikovsky is already a distinguished musician while young Antonina is still trying to get into his conservatory. From the moment she lays eyes on him, though, she seems to know this is it for her, and proceeds to do everything she can to make him feel the same way. At first Tchaikovsky is reluctant, citing their age difference, his need to be alone. But eventually – possibly tempted by her promise of a sizable dowry – he relented and they become husband and wife. The marriage is a formality from the start as Tchaikovsky grows ever more distant from his young bride. But Antonina refuses to give up or be bought out of a marriage that has caused her nothing but pain, even after she learns about his closeted homosexuality.
I associate Serebrennikov’s films with a strong, often subversive sense of style, whether it’s the violent tension of THE STUDENT, the punk rock vibes of LETO, or the extreme acid trip that is PETROV’S FLU. In comparison, TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE plays it much straighter (sorry) and feels almost classical in its approach for the most part. We follow the girl-meets-man storyline linearly, witness the disintegration of their love (or has it ever been there?) all the way to the bitter end of their lives. This overall straightforwardness was a little disappointing to me having expected Serebrennikov to completely revamp the biopic genre. Also, for stretches of time, we are left in a kind of narrative limbo where he refuses to see her and she refuses to give him a divorce. This can be somewhat frustrating as you sense the story is not going anywhere and we’re not getting closer to the characters.
In the suddenly fanciful third act beginning with a surreal parade of naked men offered to Antonina as “substitutes”, however, life comes rushing back into the picture and you realize just how much the film differs from your typical long-suffering-wife narratives, and how committed it is to portraying the two quote unquote tragic protagonists in a truthful, if unsympathetic light.
I love that this film deals with a very famous historical figure but is told from the perspective of his far less known partner. All too often we succumb to idolism and leave those who have achieved hero status off the hook easy. But if a person who’s so good at what they do has caused great pain to others, shouldn’t we also hear from them to have a more balanced view of the hero? TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE deals with this aspect of celebrity biography head-on, revealing the attempts of Tchaikovsky’s friends and family and even of the government to hide his sexuality, as well as his willful neglect of a young wife who he married with ulterior motives. At the same time, the film does not glorify the supposed victim either. Antonina is fascinating exactly because she’s not the guileless, lovelorn girl deserted by her gay husband. It’s her who would not give Tchaikovsky the satisfaction of an easy divorce or, as she chillingly says in a late scene where the film comes closest to suggesting her reasons for staying in the marriage: “I won’t let you go”. The spiteful conviction with which the statement is made lets you know it isn’t love that binds her to him either, but something more toxic, coldly possessive.
Alyona Mikhailova gives an excellent, emotionally layered performance as Antonina. Distinctly present and ever enigmatic, she keeps you guessing what’s going through her character’s mind. In addition to the scene referenced above, there’s another one that stands out to me where the couple and the three kids Antonina had with another man to pass as Tchaikovsky’s reunite for a family portrait. The vibes at such a situation are understandably weird and Mikhailova really weaponizes the passive-aggressiveness in her tone to great effect.
So that’s one comp film down, 20 more to go. Are there any films at Cannes this year that you’re especially looking forward to? On paper, who do you think has a decent shot to win?