Cannes 2022

Tchaikovsky’s Wife review – the maudlin life of a composer’s unwilling decoy

Petrov's Flu filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov tackles the life of Antonina Miliukova in a sprawling, well-acted but repetitive biopic

On Antonina Miliukova’s Wikipedia page, one subheading of the section “Marriage to Tchaikovsky” is simply titled: “From wife to reptile.” Alone, it’s a neat summary of how quickly the union between the pair collapsed into toxicity, with the composer often hurling this herpetological insult at his spouse years after their eventual split. Kirill Serebrennikov dramatises the cruelty of this doomed union in his sombre and sprawling Tchaikovsky’s Wife, which locks us into this woman’s increasingly hysterical misery over its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

The film title’s dehumanising feel rears its head throughout, where our subject is often referred to as the wife, the widow, or on at least two occasions, self-proclaiming “I am Tchaikovsky’s wife!” (cue the meme of Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at his television). Antonina (Alyona Mikhaylova), is a solitary, waifish young woman who falls irrevocably in love with her raffish music teacher, the burgeoning genius Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron). She tremblingly confesses her love to him, and after initial antipathy – he is, which is clear to everyone around him except naive Nina, gay – he decides that this pretty, pliant, charitable young girl could be his perfect beard. He makes her promise not to expect anything other than companionable, brotherly friendship, and the two are soon wed. What could go wrong?

Mikhaylova delivers a star-making turn in the film, her morose eyes and angular face possessing the same inscrutable magnetism and melancholy that Anne Wiazemsky had: the ability to express pathos with a single glance. We initially know little about her, mere spectators to her neurotic silence as she vigorously pursues the affections of the young Russian composer. It’s played with the obfuscating mania of someone who acts entirely out of character when they have a crush, losing all sense of pride and letting desperation bleed in at the edges. Unlike other works about the composer’s life – including Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, which sees her played with nymphomaniacal glee by Glenda Jackson – Tchaikovsky’s Wife is entirely told from Nina’s perspective, resulting in, for better or worse, a biopic of mundanity, gloom and repetition.

There are stunning gowns that sweep through lavish concert halls, but what prevails is a feeling of drabness; the streets are perennially washed-out in lifeless grey, while interiors look like they have been left to discolour like dusty photographs. Long takes lead us through increasingly opulent but lifeless rooms and locales, the life slowly being drained out of them as the runtime tiptoes by.

As such, one could mistake this film for stately or generic, if you studiously avoided its ice-cold core of increasing subtle madness. Tchaikovsky’s Wife grows more berserk almost without you realising, with sound pounding down upon us as Antonina moves through her waking nightmare with increased desperation (silence – “no music is more visceral, it’s as if your nerves wrote it,” one character says – is also liberally used). Proceedings tip into the Bacchic as she’s presented with a room of nude, hung men to satiate her icy libido, or when she bears two children thanks to a sordid affair with her sleazy lawyer. We’re gradually steeped longer and longer in this miserabilism until we land on a final freak-out of operatic modern dance around a burning building, full-on dream sequences, and uncanny visual effects.

The way Serebrennikov pushes us off a filmic cliff does somewhat forgive the glacial pace that came before, even if he could have ended the movie thirty minutes earlier having already hammered his point home. It feels like this film could be about anyone, which is both a strength and a detriment – she’s at once a stand-in for several beleaguered wives of tortured geniuses, and also just reflecting the plight of many women up against the patriarchy, where she is often reminded of her status as “a name in a man’s passport.” Considering Serebrennikov actually gifts Antonina some dignity – in real life she was committed to an insane asylum – the film feels repetitious and mean-spirited towards its subject, who is presented as an object of woe.

Tchaikovsky’s Wife was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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