After its 2022 Cannes premiere, director and writer Kirill Serebrennikov’s bio-drama about one of classical music’s most disastrous marriages has finally reached UK cinemas. A new Serebrennikov is always cause for celebration; from his appropriately fevered PETROV’S FLU (2022) to his recent stage and opera productions across Europe – some directed remotely while he remained under house arrest in Russia on politically motivated charges – the Russian auteur’s work is characterised by sympathy for the exploited and anarchic, provocative interpretations of both classic works and original narratives.
On the surface, the unhappy marriage of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Antonina Miliukova, with a title prioritising the latter and production imagery closer to prestige drama than punk, feels a strange match for the director. The plot of Tchaikovsky’s Wife approximates history. After following Tchaikovsky to the Moscow Conservatory of Music as an infatuated student, Miliukova wrote the unmarried composer persistent love letters until Tchaikovsky – keen to dampen rumours of his homosexuality, and keen on the monetary support of her dowry – agreed to the match. They married in 1877 and separated merely six weeks afterwards. Tchaikovsky suffered a nervous breakdown from the lie of his double life, and the financial promise of Miliukova’s forest holdings never materialised. Divorces were almost impossible to obtain without infidelity; despite efforts to construct stories and pay off Miliukova, she refused. The pair remained married – and Miliukova continued to affirm her love for her husband, despite three illegitimate children given up for adoption – until Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Miliukova died in an asylum in February 1917; according to the end titles Serebrennikov provides, her body was unburied for several days due to the revolutionary situation in Moscow.
Due to her real-life fate and the fact that Tchaikovsky’s words on his wife have been given historical precedence (her memoirs have been widely lampooned, and he may be the better writer), Antonina and her well-documented desire for her husband have often proved the butt of jokes. ‘Nymphomaniac’ has been a term often applied to her character. However, TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE proves a successful film on its own merits and is one of the most sympathetic yet unsparing portraits of Antonina (Alyona Mikhaylova) in historical fiction. While Serebrennikov’s script does not turn a blind eye to her own (naive? willful? faith-based?) blindness in swearing to love a man who cannot love her in return, her infatuation with Pyotr (Odin Biron) is given sincerity and romantic sweep.
“TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE proves a successful film on its own merits and is one of the most sympathetic yet unsparing portraits of Antonina, [and while it] does not turn a blind eye to her own blindness in swearing to love a man who cannot love her in return, her infatuation is given sincerity and romantic sweep.”
Antonina dresses for her wedding dinner as a piano motif repeats Tatyana’s music in the famous Eugene Onegin letter scene, wondering if she has poured her heart out to a guardian angel or insidious tempter. She interprets the pieces in his piano collection The Seasons with accuracy and emotion and eloquently holds her own as the men in her husband’s life seek to silence and discredit her. This is a woman holding onto a false vision of her life, but she is not mad. “I am Tchaikovsky’s Wife. This is my fate. You can’t run from fate,” she proclaims as her life crumbles. Even if the opening titles did not overtly state that this film takes place in a time and culture far from our own, her choice – however damaging, however misguided – feels unconditionally respected.
The film might be Serebrennikov’s most accessible in form and tone, though his signature anachronisms and flights of imagination are still present. Integrated into a handsomely shot period drama where mannered upper classes and impulsive artists clash, these breaks from reality offer glimpses of futures where both wife and artist have the lives and relationships (including, tenderly and semi-platonically, with the other) that they want. It is historically debated whether or not Antonina and Pyotr met again following the 1877 separation. According to Serebrennikov’s end titles, they did not. This ambiguity lends a dream sequence where they refer to the other with the informal Russian you “tyi / tebya” all the more poignant. Yet in another extra-real sequence, the composer storms that his wife – his biggest mistake and “vile tragicomedy” – will not leave him be. Why smooth over history’s messes or answer all its questions?
“The film might be Serebrennikov’s most accessible in form and tone, though his signature anachronisms and flights of imagination are still present.”
TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE will immediately invite comparisons to Ken Russell’s THE MUSIC LOVERS, the legendary British director’s factually and formally daring take on Tchaikovsky’s marriage and life. But Serebrennikov’s work is well-crafted and psychologically astute, more than meriting a reading on its own terms. “You say geniuses are permitted anything?” Antonina asks at one point; by the film’s end, the irony of appearances spares no cruelty, though even the most self-indulgent and self-inflicted defeat is portrayed with clarity and empathy. TCHAIKOVSKY’S WIFE becomes stranger and richer on reflection, and with other quasi-historical biopics having recently made waves, it feels well-timed to enter the canon and reexamine a doomed relationship.