Tchaikovsky’s Wife (2022)

December 17th, 2023
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 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 seen from the perspective of his wife Antonina Miliukova in Moscow in the late 1870s.

Tchaikovsky was homosexual and his innocent wife to be 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, according to this version of events, Tchaikovsky cannot tolerate life ‘a deux’, and especially with a woman whose quite normal nubile demands eventually drive him away from his willing partner. 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 this dour and melodramatic storyline.

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 a married woman’s obsessional and misguided love, it also touches on the prickliness of an artist trying to develop his talent, but this strand is less developed and takes a back seat to Antonina’s mental anguish.

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 an Ingres painting before the tone grows more sombre and louche with scuzzy naked sequences featuring well-hung studs, inspired by Tom of Finland staged in a 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 lady 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 expectation, 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: Tchaikovsky is unable to countenance a relationship with anyone but his own genius, and a few acolytes who pander to his talent.

The final scenes play out as a tragedy Miliukova having become a caricature of herself with the loss of 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

AT THE ICA LONDON on 22 December 20

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