Kirill Serebrennikov focuses on the relationship between one of Russia’s greatest composers and his adoring, but unloved, partner.
Kirill Serebrennikov is back in Cannes. The dissident Russian filmmaker was under house arrest in 2018, when his Leto played in competition, the subject of a politically motivated embezzlement trial – attendees from that year recall a woman wearing a homemade “Free Serebrennikov” t-shirt around the Croisette – and was still stuck in Russia when promoting last year’s Petrov’s Flu, the production of he juggled with his court dates.
As recently as mid-March, during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he bowed out of a scheduled livestream Q&A at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image for fear of reprisals. Weeks later, his travel ban lifted, he arrived in Germany, where he now plans to live, and was on hand in Cannes for the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Wife, to soak up a lengthy and deserved ovation in the same auditorium that aired a video message from Volodymyr Zelensky at last night’s opening ceremonies.
The first Palme d’Or contender to premiere at this year’s festival concerns a subject close to Serebrennikov’s heart – the struggles and compromises of a Russian artist – but its autobiographical and political resonances are far more complicated than any one-to-one correspondences.
Petrov’s Flu closed with a lengthy, technically difficult long take following the perambulations of a resurrected corpse; early in Tchaikovsky’s Wife, a similarly complex single-take follows Antonina Miliukova (Alena Mikhailova) through the throngs of mourners at her husband’s funeral, up a flight of stairs and into the room where the body of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Odin Lund Biron) rests in an open casket – but “rests” is the wrong word, as the composer sits up and bitterly remonstrates with her widow, scoffing at the message on her wreath: “From his wife, who worshipped him.”
The film then jumps back 20 years to the 1870s, and their first meeting. The smitten Antonina pursues the great man avidly, devoutly, with letters and prayers, and despite his reluctance, he proposes marriage, in language that suggests a catch: Tchaikovsky was gay, and Antonina his beard.
The first half of the film is in a more conventional Europudding biopic vein, with expensive-looking production design heavy on the blacks, natural lighting sources giving everything a stately patina, and muted pacing that, at times, muffles or even deadens the drama. Through the negotiations of their relationship, with Antonina proclaiming her undying devotion and desire to support him, and the genius keeping her at arm’s length, Serebrennikov explores how repression and deceit warp careers and relationships, and offers an implicitly self-critical look at the selfishness of a private artistic passion, suggesting that every relationship between artist and helpmeet is, at least partially, a marriage of convenience.
There are hints, though, of something altogether woolier, moments of obscure symbolism – a black fly that lands on Tchaikovsky’s forehead, a spool of black thread that Antonina spins – that point the way towards the much more subjective, virtuoso experience that Tchaikovsky’s Wife becomes after Tchaikovsky, through intermediaries, negotiates a separation with Antonina, who sinks deeper into obsession and desperation. She refuses a divorce, since she and her husband are bonded together by god. (For fans of movies in which the title character declares who they are, Tchaikovsky’s Wife is unmissable.)
Alena Mikhailova exudes unnerving conviction in a role similar to the title character in another real-life 19th-century story of romantic obsession, Adèle Hugo, played by the young Isabelle Adjani in Truffaut’s Story of Adele H. She subsists on payments from her estranged husband, and ends up as the top in her own relationship of one-way dependence and abjection, with her lawyer, with whom she deigns to have desultory sex (she gives the babies up to an orphanage and names the son after her husband, not his father).
Serebrennikov matches Antonina’s delusions with Kustirican traveling long takes that, like those in Petrov’s Flu, shift without a cut between distinct eras in time and registers of reality. In one such shot, Antonina sends her husband off to St Petersburg by train, goes to sit in the station café, and then, within the film-space of the same shot, emerges to greet him upon his return days later (he’s not on the train).
By film’s end, as the soundtrack travels forward from the 19th century to the 21st, and Serebrennikov’s camera follows Antonina into the depths of unrequited love, Tchaikovsky’s Wife has become a visionary evocation of the heartbreak and sickness of a woman in love with a Russian icon who doesn’t love her back.
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Published 19 May 2022
By Iana Murray
A Leningrad rock star takes centre stage in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Soviet-era tale of youth in revolt.