By Monica Delgado

We are already in the sixth day of the Cannes festival and the film Tchaikovsky’s Wife, by Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov, already looks very old in the course of it. On the one hand, because of the way the filmmaker takes to extrapolate a historical drama to the screen in relation to other films seen these days, and on the other, because of a certain decadent look, even more so towards the end of the film, which at this point heights looks outdated and very, paradoxically, of qualité.

Presented in the first days of this 75th edition and as part of the international competition, this new work by the filmmaker of The student (2016), Leto (2018) or Petrov’s Flu (2021) is a free version of a series of events marked by the figure of the famous composer of Swan Lake, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the relationship he had with Antonina Miliukova, in the mid-nineteenth century. The director takes as its axis the gaze of this obsessive woman who sets herself the goal of life to be as she is Tchaikovsky’s wife. This kind of unrequited love is nuanced by some readings around the idea of ??impossible romantic love, the prevailing patriarchy and homosexuality as a taboo. But also as an opportunity to ‘go deeper’ into the concerns, hypocrisies and terrors of society in St. Petersburg in those years.

Serebrennikov recovers the character of Miliukova from various letters and theories of resistance around the composer’s repressed homosexuality and his arranged marriage (to save face). The tortuous relationship with this young noblewoman, who comes from a very run-down Moscow family, is shown almost off-screen, where we barely know some personal and friendly details of the composer. Unlike, for example, the film The music lovers (1971) by Ken Russell, where the relationship with Miliukova is treated in greater detail and vertigo, here the character of Tchaikovsky, played by Odin Lund Biron, is almost a satellite in order to focus the entire story on the pulse and passion of Miliukova (Alyona Mikhailova), perceiving herself as despised, outsider, outcast in a marriage that never consummates. And there are not a few moments in which the composer expresses his repellence, disgust, indifference, towards Antonina and her body, to the point that her homosexuality becomes misogynistic nausea, (is that necessary?) And so, from sexual nausea and disgust towards the feminine, we paradoxically witness the story from the absolute gaze of this woman who dreams of being a wife, who goes from a devoted prude to a gang bang participant (in the most hackneyed parts of the film and that I assume the filmmaker perceives as poetic), and that despite being certain that he will not be able to fulfill his desires (sexual and love), he sustains his decision to the point of romantic frenzy.

This approach to the feminine through madness, restraint, stubbornness and firmness is shown by Serebrennikov in many eloquent ways from the staging: ignoring (like that initial moment when Antonina is presented to the composer, who responds that in the face of their musical interests it is better to dedicate themselves to getting married), slamming doors in the face, or other clear signs of invisibility and opportune contempt. And if we take into account the macho and traditional context of Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, it could be said that this is how women were treated, however, before the forms of realistic narrative, the possibility of fantasy biography, of the fanciful and intimate digression, where the filmmaker’s intention to highlight this internal aspect, the film looks rough from the framing, from the insistent soundtrack, and from some editing tricks, such as those ellipses that speak of the passage of time but also as abrupt matter of the unreal (crazed) world  where this woman lives. Antonina’s world only perceived from pathology.

Like any film that is based on biopic codes, there are texts at the beginning and end of the film that put the viewer in the road, locating it in time, but also with some details before and after the story. Thus, the beginning begins with the funeral of the composer and from the renegade and hostile role played by the new widow. From these first few minutes, the Russian director exposes the recurring elements of his film, and towards the end they become trite, creaky, cheesy – like Antonina’s dance of madness in the middle of a choreography of muscular naked men.

Tchaikovsky’s Wife is the affected incursion into the mechanisms of unreality and the consequences of unconsummated sexual passion, from elaborate codes of the unconscious, and where the male subject of study that provokes this situation is barely touched.

official competition
Direction and script: Kirill Serebrennikov
Photography: Vladislav Opelyants
Music: Daniel Orlov
Cast: Alyona Mikhailova, Odin Lund Biron, Miron Fedorov, Nikita Elenev, Ekaterina Ermishina, Filipp Avdeev, Andrey Burkovskiy
Production companies: Hype Film, Charade Productions, Logical Pictures, Charade Films, Bord Cadre Films, art France Cinéma
Russia, France, Switzerland, 2022, 149 min