Tchaikovsky’s Wife review – love turns to obsession in an off-key marriage

·3 min read

Writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov brings his intense sympathies to the unhappy figure of Antonina Miliukova, estranged wife of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, in a part once taken by Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Music Lovers. Serebrennikov’s movie imagines Antonina as selfish, fanatical, naive, narcissistic and self-indulgent, not to say antisemitic, but also as the most wronged-genius wife since Sophia Tolstoy, or, indeed, Constance Wilde.

As often in the past, this director’s film-making inhales or intuits the characteristics of its subject, and so it becomes almost oppressively hysterical and highly strung, like Antonina or Tchaikovsky himself. But the movie also becomes bizarre when it dramatises the reputation that Antonina acquired for sexual obsessiveness, with dozens of well-built naked men brought into the screen for balletic fantasy sequences. But the nymphomaniac reputation was given to Antonina, surely, by malicious well-connected men and intimates of Tchaikovsky who had a vested interest in undermining her.

Alyona Mikhailova is tremendous in the role of Antonina, an unhappy young woman from a troubled, shabby-genteel Moscow family who studies music briefly under Tchaikovsky and falls fanatically and hero-worshippingly in love with him – with all same the religiose devotion as that of the holy fool beggars in the streets. To the very end, she resembles a serious-minded little girl. Tchaikovsky, played by Odin Biron, is a blandly conceited man who is at first embarrassed by Antonina’s brazen and desperate suggestion of marriage. But he then comes to see that her promised dowry (the sale of a family forest) would help him out of a financial jam and that marriage would quieten the gossips, because Tchaikovsky is gay – as he almost, but not quite, warns Antonina before the proposition is made, telling her he could love her only “as a brother”.

She is the unwanted outsider that she once imagined herself protecting Tchaikovsky against

Poor Antonina cannot grasp the truth about her husband’s sexuality and the film persuasively suggests she simply refuses to accept that, or anything else that might bring about divorce and the destruction of her divine destiny: to be Tchaikovsky’s wife. Absurdly, she imagines herself as his future handmaiden, amanuensis or guardian, but instead she is bewildered and upset by the crowds of boisterous male cronies that seem to surround her new husband at all times, laughing at something she doesn’t understand. The wedding dinner is a funeral, the conjugal duties are a nightmare and soon Tchaikovsky withdraws from her in fastidious disgust – and Antonina pursues him as fiercely as Glenn Close did Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction.

The film certainly brings home Antonina’s terrible loneliness: she is apart from Tchaikovsky for most of the film, but is mentally chained to someone who hates her. There is a brilliant fantasy scene at the very beginning where Tchaikovsky rises from the dead to berate those people who had allowed her in to look at his corpse. Poor Antonina’s emotional life is confined to a sordid and joyless affair with her lawyer. She condemns herself to a life at the margins of Tchaikovsky’s celebrity: she is the unwanted outsider who she once imagined herself protecting Tchaikovsky against.

This is undoubtedly a vehement and very watchable drama – far superior to Serebrennikov’s previous film, the sprawling and unrewarding Petrov’s Flu. If there is a narrowness in its emotional and final range, that gives it force.

• Tchaikovsky’s Wife screens at the Cannes film festival.

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