Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, shortly before the tsarist era began. Society is, as one would say today, brutally divided: here the nobility, the officers, the civil servants, the admired artists; there the servants, the messengers, the kitchen maids. At the bottom, in the stinking, muddy gutter, with the rats, the scum: beggars, day labourers, jugglers, cripples.
In one scene of Kirill Serebrennikov’s epic, two-and-a-half-hour new film, Tchaikovsky’s Wife, which is running in competition at Cannes, a mad beggar woman rips open her shirt in religious rapture, plump breasts spilling out. She covets her Lord, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. In ecstasy, she pulls Antonina Miliukova to the ground. She gets to her feet and flees into the arms of another woman, who stammers: “A good omen.”
Really, a good omen? Born from mud and madness? Miliukova believes in it, with that inherent steadfastness that ultimately sustains a film that has every chance of collapsing. But he doesn’t, despite all the craziness, he keeps plan sequences lasting minutes, i.e. tracking shots without a cut, in which it sometimes gets light, starts to snow, in which the dead are only washed, then when the camera’s gaze touches them again , laid out in shrouds of death. Also in defiance of the ridiculousness into which the eponymous main character maneuvers himself, Tchaikovsky’s wife, wife of the most important Russian composer, to whom he only slowly blossomed in the course of the years described.
Russia’s enfant terrible Kirill Serebrennikov, who was recently under house arrest for a year and a half on political suspicion, has been planning the film about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality for many years. He already talked about it in 2015, had to put the project on hold again and again, shot two other films in between, “Leto” in 2018 and “Petrov’s Flu” last year, which also competed for the Palme d’Or.
Serebrennikov has also repeatedly produced for the theater, most recently in Hamburg at the beginning of the year. He wrote his production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” in Zurich four years ago, imprisoned in his Moscow apartment, bar by bar in the score. His lawyer smuggled the stage directions to his assistant, who translated them for the stage in Zurich.
In Putin’s Russia, they don’t like a gay star composer that much, even if the president makes no secret of his sexual orientation. Other powerful cultural officials dispute it to this day, although letters that became public after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 by cholera speak a clear language: “Hello,” he writes to his brother, who is also gay, “here’s your big sister, Petrolina. No, there is nothing new here in the world of aunts. My harem’s concubines are hanging around. But you know, they’ve become as indispensable to me as toilet paper.”
Serebrennikov now focuses on Aljona Miliukova, the woman the composer eventually married in hopes of 10,000 rubles from real estate and an end to the rumors that, even though he was semi-openly gay, still bothered him. The 26-year-old Alyona Mikhailova embodies her with impressive intensity. At the beginning one looks pityingly at her eagerness, the love at first sight that has seized her.
She comes from a middle class, pushed by a cruel but also cruelly clear-sighted mother. She will soon bury her dream of a career as a pianist. She is unswervingly clinging to her amour fou, the obsession of marrying an obvious gay man who, at her insistence after a marriage, confesses that he has no interest in women and will only be able to love her like a brother.
She fails at parties to which only effeminate men are invited, with painted eyebrows and graceful gestures, trying to get her husband to dance. “One piece of advice,” whispers a well-meaning queen in her ear, “run away from him as fast as you can!” She throws goodwill to the wind.
As a spectator, you slowly become unwilling. Doesn’t she want to see what the whole world knows? All their efforts are futile. A desperate attempt to seduce Tchaikovsky, at night, in the light of an oil lamp in his room, leads to a reverse rape – the violence remains the same, her husband angrily chokes her, the intention being precisely to remain untouched.
So, years later, it falls to the lawyer who is supposed to arrange the divorce for her to deflower her. “You are a nobody to me,” she replies coldly, even after months of the affair, “I am Tchaikovsky’s wife.” She refuses to accuse her husband of infidelity – the only way out of the marriage. The opposing team, consisting of the composer’s brother, his lawyers and possibly lovers, is stunned.
Her psychology remains a mystery to the end. She is a “Mother Courage” who lets three children die in the orphanage, fruits of their love affairs, which are also historically documented. However, it is debatable whether the nymphomania that the story ascribes to her is not exhausted in slander from her husband’s party. Serebrennikov doesn’t question them. In general, he tells with the greatest possible aplomb, he reaches deep into the abysses of the famous Russian soul.
He often scratches close to kitsch and mannerism. The suites of rooms, corridors, birch forests under water are immersed in an old-master chiaroscuro, a gentle mist wafts everywhere. The director does not shy away from re-enacting classics from art history, first of all the “Parquet Grinders” by Gustave Caillebotte, who was also gay and possibly the great patron of the Impressionists who lived at the same time.
Alyona Mikhailova holds it all together in a stirring performance of this sad Joan of Arc en maison. In terms of acting, Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron) is a considerably greater support than in any other respect. Ultimately, however, everything depends on Mikhailova. She shines from within, but unobtrusively, as attributed to her by the role of women at the time. She moves gracefully like a dancer, hopes, desperately, is full of stubbornness and a love whose insanity she succeeds in ennobling. That makes her an early favorite for the Palme d’Or for best actress.
Before the premiere there were voices that wanted to cancel Serebrennikov in a wash with everything Russian. It was a mistake to show the film at all because it would undermine the sanctions against warring Russia. Certainly there is also “dirty” money in its financing, even if the official state authorities refused to support it years ago simply because of the homosexuality it emphasized.
In one scene, Antonina is sent to the country to let grass grow over the matter. An overlay reveals: It is a place “near Kyiv”, then part of the Russian empire. Does that leave a mark on this impressive film? No, it’s just history. In the interview after the first screening, Serebrennikov condemns the war.