Many films have been made about famed 19th century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but little has been documented and told about his wife, Antonina Miliukova. This is the story that director Kirill Serebrennikov tells, it’s about human connection, obsession and defiance. Tchaikovsky’s Wife suceeds Petrov’s Flu, which released last year to great acclaim, winning the Vulcan Award for cinematography at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Serebrennikov is no stranger to Cannes, so naturally there has been copious amounts of buzz in the air surrounding the premiere of his latest work.
The year is 1872, Antonina (Alyona Mikhailova) is a student and admirer, to say the least, of Pyotr (who shall be referred to as Tchaikovsky from here on). Antonina is desperate to meet the famous composer and at a party she gets the chance to briefly acquaint herself with him, before he leaves. What comes next is a flurry of haste as Antonina desperately searches for his contact and how to write personal, loving letters to attract her crush. She eventually tracks down his home address and convinces him to come visit her. At said organised meeting between the two of them, Antonina confesses her love for Tchaikovsky and proposes that he take her as his wife, it’s her dream and she isn’t willing to take no for an answer. What ensues beyond Tchaikovsky accepting Antonina’s proposal is a terrible kind of relationship, one that is extremely one-sided, sometimes abusive and mocked upon. Every acquaintance of Tchaikovsky cannot take them seriously, laughing at the very prospect of him marrying.
Tchaikovsky’s Wife plays a lot like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, both share similar themes of longing and discontent centered around a leading female protagonist. Like Vicky Krieps’ character in Phantom Thread, Mikhailova plays Antonina with a growing level of defiance, along with an added sense of endless desire to be with Tchaikovsky. The toxicity of their relationship continues to build as it becomes rapidly clear that it’s impossible for Antonina to let go, her disillusions take over and cause her to waste her entire life. There is a strong element of tragedy and sadness to be felt as one watches Antonina’s hopeless, but loving gestures. The portrayal of the marriage, and their interactions, is very well played out.
The film begins with a statement about how a woman is just a name on their husband’s passport, which sets up the context of societal norms at the time. However, it doesn’t take time to develop those initial words, but it gets lost in Antonina’s obsession rather than her status as a woman in the 19th century. Therefore, the initial setup feels a little redundant. Even the title itself gets one thinking about what’s to come, one enters the cinema thinking who is Tschaikovsky’s wife and why is she nameless? We shortly find out that its titled that because it’s what she wants to be known as, Antonina is willing to throw her whole life away just to be with him. The title also reminds of the central and eastern European tradition of the wife being known as “[husband’s name]’s wife,” rather than taking just the husband’s surname, which is still ongoing today in many cultures. It’s all very intriguing and Serebrennikov emphasises the tragedy of it all through the use of prolonged long takes, effectively placing his audience in the front row of Antonina’s turbulent life. The film’s slow pace adds to the frustration that one feels, it’s as if she were only an arms reach away waiting for a slight nudge that could put her life back on track.
Tchaikovsky himself remains a mystery to the audience, most of his actions are off-screen beyond his interactions with his wife. But that is just, considering the core focus, as the title suggests, is on Antonina, Tchaikovsky’s wife. One becomes emotionally attached due the always close proximity of the camera to Antonina, in the sense that everything becomes extremely subjective as the camera’s focus is continually trained on her reactions, emotions and actions. The camera’s gaze becomes almost cold everytime the slowly withering Tchaikovsky enters the frame. The audience are subjected to a strange sense of hopeless involvement to the tragedy of the story and the consequences of the leading character’s obsession.
There is certainly lots that could’ve altered the experience of watching the film, but the ambiguity that Serebrennikov holds onto makes it quite the involving and beguiling watch. Actor Odin Biron really sells Tchaikovsky as a mysterious and completely detached man, void of all human attachments, barring his alleged affairs with men which is another element that feels glossed over. Complementing Tchaikovsky’s Wife‘s intriguing narrative is an endless array of beautiful shots which embraces natural light in an almost fantastical manner. The audience is submerged into the past as the frames flick by, reminding one of the relatively low-budget immersion of a film like László Nemes’ Sunset. It’s a combination of the production design, costumes and cinematography that sell Serebrennikov’s world, allowing the narrative to unravel as it does. There are many great aspects and a fair few complaints, but in the end, Tchaikovsky’s Wife definitely has the potential to leave a lasting impression on audiences.
This review is from the Cannes Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.