Director: Kirill Serebrennikov | Script: Kirill Serebrennikov | Cast: Alyona Mikhailova (Antonina Miliukova), Odin Lund Biron (Pjotr Iljitsj Tsjaikovsky), ea | Time to play: 143 minutes | Year: 2022
In response to the war in Ukraine, the influx of films from Russia has all but dried up. With his provocative portrayal of the famous composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Kirill Serebrennikov is one of the few Russian directors to hit Dutch cinemas this year. Tchaikovsky’s wife, about the cult of greatness and the imbalance of power, is the kind of critical film from which, rightly, an exception is made. Serebrennikov paints a picture of a national hero that is hard to reconcile with Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law while saying a lot about Europe’s outcast.
As the title of the film announces, Serebrennikov points the camera at Antonina Miliukova, wife of. The truth-based character develops an obsessive crush on the would-be Tchaikovsky, though the exact attraction remains vague. For Antonina, Tchaikovsky is like the sun, and without the sun it is impossible to live. Threatening to kill himself, he does everything he can to bond the genie to her.
Tchaikovsky shudders at the thought of getting married, but soon sees Antonina as a cover for his homosexuality and her dowry as a solution to his money problems. The loud buzzing of the fly witnessing what Tchaikovsky himself calls a banal tragicomedy is indicative of a relationship that has been rotten from the start. As Antonina weeps tears of happiness on her wedding day, bad omens for Tchaikovsky mount, and as the ceremony closes with a kiss, he reads the disgust on his face.
During their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky manages to put up with his new life partner’s hotheaded behavior reasonably well, but when Antonina, craving physical contact, visits his bed one night, Tchaikovsky goes all out. He flees to St. Petersburg and sends her entourage to break up his marriage. A power struggle for Tchaikovsky’s genius begins. The patriarchy, in fact, makes Antonina confiscate her creativity, which does not belong to a mere mortal like her, but to Mother Russia.
Alyona Mikhailova knows how to convince with her portrayal of an elusive character who won’t let herself eat the cheese on her plate. The manipulative and devoted Antonina initially elicits little sympathy, but her fighting spirit slowly evokes awe. In a room full of men, she manages to silence everyone. Clad in a red dress, which Tchaikovsky finds ugly, and with a black veil over her face, Mikailova’s indomitable Antonina dominates virtually every scene.
A protagonist who only wants to go to the conservatory to marry a well-known composer and who likes to be in her husband’s shadow, as the film’s title says, doesn’t feel very emancipated. Still, Antonina’s ambiguity raises interesting questions. Particularly since Tchaikovsky seems to be as much of a victim as she is. Sebrennikov uses a sick Moscow filled with smog, beggars, and excrement as a sweltering backdrop, except for a series of beautiful bird’s-eye views.
During the most talked about scene, Nikolai, part of Tchaikovsky’s private circle of quirky friends, summons five stark naked Adonis in an attempt to spin Antonina’s head and make her forget about Pjotr. It’s a wonderfully contrarian moment in a hundred and forty-three minutes that, given the characters who aren’t very cuddly, can be called a war of attrition.
The curtain finally falls fifteen minutes too late, but with the same idiosyncrasy as the previous parade of naked men. Wrestling with her demons, Antonina dances to a dreamy feverish finale. It wouldn’t seem out of place in ‘Swan Lake’, if it weren’t for the strange closing music that breaks with Tchaikovsky’s. The work of the most famous Russian composer performed in Tchaikovsky’s wife not really a big role anyway.