Review: Tchaikovsky’s Wife
by David Katz
- CANNES 2022: Kirill Serebrennikov gives us a disturbing read on the marriage of the venerated 19th-century Russian composer and his devoted spouse, Antonina Miliukova
Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov, at long last and following tremendous censure at the hands of his national government, is finally at the Cannes Film Festival in person to present Tchaikovsky's Wife [+see also:
film profile], his chronicle of the composer’s devoted and then shunned spouse in which the traditional marital vow "till death do us part" is taken awfully literally. By focusing so intimately on the relationship’s better half, the filmmaker allows her to function as a metaphor for other forms of resistance to authority.
Tchaikovsky’s Wife will be parsed by viewers and industry observers for its overall political stance, having been unveiled to the public at a time of intense geopolitical and national conflict, itself being projected (no pun intended) onto the film world. Those looking for a shadow commentary on Putinism will be frustrated, and its placement in far-gone Russian history won't satiate those looking for a more obviously dissident statement (as Serebrennikov has been vaunted, with the various legal charges against him), that would justify its industry platform as a Russian film when many have called for a boycott of the nation's cultural output.
In the film's favour, it has a simple, although not simplistic story, building gradual catharsis from one primary conflict, upon which Serebrennikov can create all kinds of cinematic wonder, as well as explore its percolating themes. It is the tale of a bad romance, or non-romance, between the composer whose pieces are among the most iconic (and sometimes overplayed) in the classical repertoire, and a woman so in love with him, so worshipful of him, that she could overlook his homosexuality as well as their lack of any rapport or chemistry in the first place.
From their first meeting in private, once Antonina Miliukova (Alyona Mikhaylova) sends a rapturous love letter, Pyotr's (Odin Biron) forehead is bumped and menaced by a succession of flies, earning the film one of its few moments of comic levity. And after some early audiences of this film have questioned just why Antonina would want to martyr herself to him like this, the fly, sticking to and harrying its target, is ever-suggestive. Tchaikovsky was a rare celebrity of the time, at home and abroad, and you can read this film as being about a toxic personality cult - a pertinent theme for a Russian artist dissecting his country - with Antonina as the chief adherent, her fanaticism making for an utterly charismatic performance from Mikhaylova. And the manner in which her passions are rebuffed, and her steadfast reaction - creating an idealised version of Pyotr in her dreams - also make her seem stubbornly indefatigable, in a way that can reflect Russian leadership, as well as the tireless resistance from the citizenry.
Still, reflecting on these ideas doesn't always flatter what can make Serebrennikov so brilliant. Summoning his avant-garde theatre roots, he often aims to make his films such an experience - so pulverising and intense in the case of Petrov’s Flu [+see also:
film profile] and here - that a more analytical response misses the point. Tchaikovsky’s Wife becomes a haunting tale of mental disintegration in its final act, where Serebrennikov twists the knife so that Antonina becomes an unreliable narrator before we can be wise enough to notice. His choices also leave her with far more dignity than the common notion of her fate, stranded in a mental asylum for the remainder of her years.
Tchaikovsky’s Wife is a co-production between Russia, France and Switzerland, staged by Charades, Logical Pictures, Bord Cadre films and Hype Films.
Photogallery 19/05/2022: Cannes 2022 - Tchaikovsky's Wife
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