Tchaikovsky’s Wife

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

A darkly atmospheric story of denial and isolation, Kirill Serebrennikov’s film Tchaikovsky’s Wife takes us into the doomed marriage of the composer and his wife, Antonina Miliukova.

We start at the end, with Tchaikovsky’s funeral. Antonina, in widow garb, arrives at his laying out. Surrounded by his coterie of male friends, she pushes forward to see her dead husband. In a fabulous coup de theatre, the deceased composer turns his head, sees his wife and sits up on the bed. “Who invited her?” he barks. Serebrennikov’s blend of reality and fantasy announces itself early: emotions start at fever pitch and rarely let up. The composer himself warns Antonina, and us, that he is “highly strung”. This is somewhat of an understatement.

The couple meet in 1872, at a society party. Everyone’s speaking fashionable French instead of earthy Russian. Antonina (played by Alyona Mikhailova) makes a beeline for Tchaikovsky – herself a music student – and after writing him some very frank love letters, and a casual mention of a sizeable dowry – Tchaikovsky (Odin Lund Biron) proposes marriage. But this is a proposal of convenience, rather than passion. Tchaikovsky already knows that he is gay, telling Antonina that he has “never loved a woman”. But Antonina is fiercely religious, and these words fall on deaf ears. It is on their honeymoon train to Moscow that Antonina first meets Tchaikovsky’s friends. The clique closes around Tchaikovsky like a vice: Antonina is already frozen out of the marriage. Stubbornly clinging to a marital ideal, Antonina refuses to listen, even as Tchaikovsky’s sister (a great, but brief, performance from Varvara Shmykova) reveals her brother’s inclinations. Tchaikovsky suffers a nervous breakdown and his friends rally to protect the genius. Love turns to obsession, as Antonina is told to divorce Tchaikovsky. She digs her heels in. Tchaikovsky’s brothers scorn that she will be a “widow to a living husband”.

In this beautifully-observed study of Russian nineteenth-century life, where a woman is merely a name added on her husband’s passport, a sense of claustrophobia infuses the entire narrative. Tchaikovsky’s sexuality is kept under wraps, and Antonina gets a husband to rival Sophia Tolstoy and Constance Wilde. Shot through a gothic haze, the look of the film exudes a genteel ennui – the art direction from Lyubov Korolkova references the pale, subdued palette of a Hammershoi interior, while on the streets, a dense smog fails to lift. The way forward is constantly obscured. The moments of fantasy – including a memorable scene where Antonina dances with a troupe of naked men – echo the longing within Tchaikovsky’s music. The film is as much psychological portrait as it is biopic. The lion’s share of screen time is given to Antonina, and Mikhailova makes good use of it: Antonina emerges from the shadows with her intensely-felt performance. Intensity perfectly describes this Palme d’Or nominated film: in a reasoned but complicated analysis of desire, no-one gets what they want. Serebrennikov’s rumination on obsession, genius and the price paid for both, is deliberately, and defiantly, off-key.

Tchaikovsky’s Wife is released in UK cinemas on 29th December.

The Reviews Hub Score:

A psychological portrait

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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