|Alyona Mikhailova as Antonina Miliukova, aka Tchaikovsky's
wife, eavesdropping on her husband's music lesson
Whilst I haven't seen writer director Kirill Serebrennikov’s film from last year, Petrov's Flu,(2021) which received much attention, I did catch his earlier film The Student (2016) on one of the streaming services a few years ago. Although I don’t remember much of the storyline, a moody and brooding sense of the film remained…and the same can be said about Tchaikovsky's Wife, a film that draws you into a kind of fever-dream, spiralic, toxic and in this instance, of the paradoxical undressing kind: where one is seized by hallucinations and inhibition before death overwhelms body and mind.
Serebrennikov’s Tchaikovsky's Wife has all the hallmarks of an epic film, with its gorgeous period costumes, splendid interiors, the mise-en-scène is opulent in mood and tone, either created by natural light or by golden candle-lit interiors and, not to mention its 2 hour 23 minute run time. This latter fact may have put off some audiences (and critics), hence the many reviews that described the film as repetitive or mundane.
Let's strip back all the veneer; this is not a film about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the man, the pianist, the world famous composer of beloved ballets (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, to name but a few), no please, it is a film about Antonina Miliukova, akaTchaikovsky's wife– the name unknown to many, including myself. And her introduction is by way of her more famous husband. Although in real life she is once removed, Antonina is, however, centre stage in this film. And as a woman watching this film, I found her insufferable moments, the long dregs of boredom, the day prolonged and stretched beyond recognition, of ennui and dystopia, is but of a life imagined of women in that epoch.
|The 'confrontation' with Odin Lund Biron as Tchaikovsky
The colour palette that describes her milieu is like that of a barley field, a mix of washed stone and muted grass. She is washed out and faded; the shine of her husband surpasses her non-existent life, which is made more lowly by the instilled behaviour of that period. Her retreat into a kind of demi-madness and ‘hysterical’ stupor is all but standard fare (I’m using the word hysteriahere because this was the common description of women who exhibited any kind of outward emotion in those days, I imagine that audiences today would simply see her behaviour as of the everyday).
There are many levels of invention in Serebrennikov’s dreamic film. Some sequences are reminiscent, in both lighting and cinematography, of Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) with the camera trailing behind Antonina(an astonishing performance by Alyona Mikhailova) as she frantically forces her way into a restaurant in search of her husband, months after he has deserted her. Vladislav Opelyants’ cinematography is fluid, febrile, inventive and immaculate.
Their marriage was never meant to be: what it was meant to be was a sham marriage; of convenience to Tchaikovsky, who preferred men to women and of a self-seduction on Antonina’s part – an obsession of this great man who led her away from her small but secure life as a professional seamstress, to study music under Tchaikosvky’s tutelage at the Moscow Music Conservatory before professing her love for him in a couple of letters when she was well past the ‘marrying age’ for women at the time. Then bingo, he marries her. They only managed to stay together for 6 weeks (or 2 ½ months) before their disparate temperaments and psychologies drove Tchaikovsky permanently away. Like the fly that antagonised Tchaikovsky during their first meeting at her flat, (this fly motif recurs throughout the film) their relationship is symbolised by an insect that instils in us a sole instinct to shoo it away, or better yet, to swat it. The fly also conjures up the idea of annoyance, pestilence and death; and symbolises malice, neglect or decay.
|Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) with his wife
Antonina Miliukova in 1877 from the
Collection of State P. Tchaikovsky
Despite the interesting chapters described in letters and biography (written by his brother, Modest) of Tchaikovsky’s very obvious and malicious hatred of Antonina, Serebrennikov’s film showed a woman of who had two faces; one in which she lived in a daydream of being Tchaikovsky’s wife, adored, venerated and perhaps even loved by her husband in the way she loved and worshipped him; and the other, the devastation that was wrecked by a lovesick myopic woman, who ended up in a sordid and unhappy affair with her divorce lawyer.
This kind of wretchedness produced a woman that led Serebrennikov’s film to its creative heights. The opening sequence had Tchaikovsky literally rising from the dead (it was at his deathbed viewing) to berate Antonina for daring to show up at his funeral. Their marriage reception was described as a ‘funeral’ by Antonina’s sister, where Tchaikovsky only had eyes for his friend, and fed him, not his bride, morsels of the wedding feast. Once the root of Antonina’s misery has taken a hold of her body and soul, was when she fully becomes Tchaikovsky’s wife. We see her in another sequence where she was asked to take her pick of a careful selection of handsome men having been handpicked for their distinctive looks and physique especially for her. Having undressed in the room and paying her their full attention, they waited to be chosen. Antonina considered each one with a discerning eye, like that of a farmer selecting their prized bull and then, having examined each one, but selecting none, her only response was to remain in the room with all of them and to close the door to the camera. The Antonina men then appear in a fantastical operatic dance sequence at the climax of the film. I’ve always loved these kinds of interludes in films and was not disappointed.
Oh, for those who wanted to know about Tchaikovsky (played misogynistically here by Odin Lund Biron), there are a number of documentaries available, including the recent highly-rated BBC drama Tchaikovsky: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius and of course Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers with Richard Chamberlain (who is, incidentally, an accomplished pianist) as the great man himself. However, I would suggest to best get to ‘know’ Tchaikovskythrough his music, think Eugene Onegin or his Piano Concerto No. 1 (though I can’t now unsee the image of Chamberlain’s performance of said piece in my mind’s eye).
#sydneyfilmfestival 8th - 19th June 2022.