Tchaikovsky’s Wife (2022) Cannes Film Festival

May 18th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Kirill Serebrennikov | Cast: Alyona Mikhailova, Odin Lund Biron, Yuliya Org, Miron Federov | Biopic Drama 143′

Best known for his multi-award winning feature debut The Student, the exiled Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov – who was last in Cannes with Petrov’s Flu – continues to blaze a trail with another inspired biopic drama – a first to explore the turbulent, sexless relationship between the  19th century Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky from the perspective of his wife Antonina Miliukova in Moscow in the late 1870s.

It appears that Tchaikovsky was in fact a homosexual and that the innocent Antonina was oblivious to the fact: in her diaries she supposedly wrote: “Thank God he belongs to me and no-one else. Now he is my husband and no-one can take him away from me”. But Tchaikovsky cannot tolerate life ‘a deux’, and especially with a woman whose quite normal nubile demands eventually drive him away. And although our sympathies are with Antonina we are not oblivious to her faults which clearly go beyond religious insistence and eventually become tiresome in the final stages.

Those expecting a sweeping epic filled with vast tracks of the composer’s romantic music will be disappointed.True to its title Tchaikovsky’s Wife is first and foremost a lavish and lyrical but often cold-eyed portrait of obsessional and misguided love, it also touches on the prickliness of an artist trying to develop his talent, but in this respect it is less successful.

Enriched by modern dance sequences, inventive camera angles and occasional flashes of Tarkovsky, each frame is a painterly portrait straight out of Manet, or Berthe Morisot with the delicate detailing of Ingres before the tone grows more sombre and louche with scuzzy naked sequences featuring well-hung studs, inspired by Tom of Finland staged in an rather misogynist attempt to excite the young woman and lure her away from her husband.

We first meet Antonina Miliukova in 1877 as a tender young woman of fortune tentatively seeking a husband and lovestruck by her first sighting of the struggling composer. Fifteen years later she is reduced to a poverty ridden emotional wreck unable to accept that her marriage has irretrievably broken down and her affair with the divorce lawyer has turned abusive.

What starts as hopeful story of triumph over expectations, after the couple’s marriage of convenience, soon descends into a tragedy of melodramatic proportions when Miliukova’s promise of family wealth comes to nothing and Tchaikovsky is unable to countenance having a relationship with anyone but his own genius. The final scenes play out as a tragedy Miliukova having become a caricature of herself having lost her three children but determined not to relinquish the unique status of being the wife of a man who would eventually become one of the world’s most legendary composers. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | IN COMPETITION 2022

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