Cannes 2022 review: Tchaikovsky’s Wife (Kirill Serebrennikov)

“Some directorial flourishes and admirable tech work aside, Tchaikovsky’s Wife spirals into a mess along with its protagonist.”

Much has been said and written over time about the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but less is known about his tumultuous marriage to Antonina Miliukova. Only together for two and a half months, the couple lived separated until Tchaikovsky’s death. Annulling a marriage in 19th century Russia required approval of the crown and a valid reason to break the bonds, but neither partner wanted to commit to this. Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov focuses his latest film on Antonina, as its title Tchaikovsky’s Wife already suggests. A film that tries everything within its might to milk the drama, Tchaikovsky’s Wife fails at its most important task: trying to get underneath its central character to find a reason for her infatuation with her composer husband. As a result the film is a rather flat portrait of a delusional, creepily obsessed woman who stubbornly sticks to her love for a narcissistic man who despises her. Some directorial flourishes and admirable tech work aside, Tchaikovsky’s Wife spirals into a mess along with its protagonist.

Shortly after meeting him, Antonina Miliukova (Alyona Mikhaylova) enrols in Tchaikovsky’s conservatorium. Though certainly not devoid of talent, she mainly does so to be close to the man she has become obsessed with. It doesn’t take long before she throws herself at him, flat-out proposing marriage. After rebuking her initially, Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron) has an apparent change of heart and agrees to the marriage. He warns her that he has tantrums and can be cold, and that he is not used to the company of women. Antonina, blinded by either love or denial, or a combination of both, ignores all the red flags thrown at her, as she remains almost wilfully oblivious to the very clear fact that her husband is gay. Soon he can’t stand to be in her presence, coming up with excuses to be away from her, or sending her off to his family in the countryside just to be rid of her. Attempts by his brothers to get her to divorce him fall on deaf ears, as Antonina stubbornly holds on to their marriage. Her financial situation deteriorates, and so does her sanity, but until Tchaikovsky’s death she clings to her delusions.

Serebrennikov’s main problem is that he doesn’t truly delve into the motivations of his lead character, leaving her intentions for the audience to decide. Is Antonina in denial, or is it all part of her plans? The way Mikhaylova plays her the former suggestion seems to be the right one, but Serebrennikov’s unwillingness to commit to a more explicit explanation leaves the film confused about its protagonist. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, Antonina’s arc flatlines for most of the way, only devolving into madness in the final act. As the character slides further into insanity, so does Mikhaylova’s performance in quality, sadly. Playing Antonina with restraint early on, her frustration about her husband’s cold shoulder is palpable, but once she has to fight for her sham marriage and the realization sinks in that Tchaikovsky is trying to dump her, Mikhaylova plays for the rafters.

Her director doesn’t help her, scoring her demise with overbearing piano music (as if we needed reminding that this is a film about a classical composer), which gives the film an air of pomposity that it could do without. Visually, Serebrennikov and his DP Vladislav Opelyants go for the ubiquitous Netflix aesthetic: lots of underlit interiors with dusky light coming in through the windows, lots of mist in outside shots. Sumptuous costume design and art direction lift the film a little, and a few tracking shots to convey the passage of time are inspired, but overall Tchaikovsky’s Wife is a relatively straightforward costume drama that doesn’t deserve the lyrical ending it’s going for. Serebrennikov must be commended for giving us three stylistically different films in a row, after 2018’s Leto and Petrov’s Flu last year, but Tchaikovsky’s Wife is easily the weakest effort of the trio.