The Cannes Film Festival has been careful to steer clear of Russian participation this year, barring “official Russian delegations” and “anyone linked to the Russian government” and also declining to credential many Russian journalists. That puts a clear focus on director Kirill Serebrennikov, whose “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is the only Russian film in the festival’s official selection.
And when you consider that Serebrennikov had publicly criticized Vladimir Putin’s government in the past and had been placed under house arrest on what some say were trumped-up fraud charges, you’d figure that his presence in the festival probably means that he’s bringing a film that wags a finger at the country where he no longer lives.
But instead, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” which premiered on Wednesday as part of the festival’s Main Competition, is set in the late 19th century, toward the end of a different Russian empire, which means that Serebrennikov was not aiming for a state-of-the-union commentary when he made the film. Still, you may be able to infer some connections to present-day Russia, mostly in an overall sense of gloom and foreboding and in the fact that the film has a lot to do with the sexual orientation of one of the country’s most celebrated composers, a subject that is still taboo in Russia.
The film is not a biopic by any means, but a dramatic fantasia designed to delve into the state of mind of Antonina Miliukova, who married the composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky in 1877 and remained his wife until he died in 1893, even though they separated after only six weeks of marriage. It’s a bold and stylish work that slips in and out of fantasy and isn’t afraid to use music and sound design as a weapon, but it can also get relentlessly dreary and oppressive, albeit by design.
This is the fourth Serebrennikov film in the last six years to screen in Cannes, after “The Student” in 2016, “Leto” in 2018 and “Petrov’s Flu” last year. And it’s the director’s second music-focused film at the festival, after his wildly entertaining rock ‘n’ roll fantasia “Leto.”
The two films both show that Serebrennikov has strong ideas about how to use music, but otherwise they’re worlds apart. “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” begins with Miliukova (Alyona Mikhaylova) dressed in widow’s black and trying to choose the right words for her funeral wreath; but when she arrives in the room where her husband’s corpse is laid out, Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron, full of quiet Peter Sarsgaard smarm) rouses himself, stands up and asks, “Why is the wife here? Who invited her?”
The scene is enough to tell you that this will be Miliukova’s story, and that it won’t be a straight period piece, even though it re-creates 1893 St. Petersburg, 1872 Moscow and points in between in details that are both muddy and lustrous. It finds chaos in the streets and darkness in upscale parlors.
It’s in one of those parlors that Miliukova meets Tchaikovsky and tells him she wants to attend his musical conservatory. “Why?” he says. “You’re better off getting married.” And sure enough, Miliukova decides that she needs to be married – to the dashing and troubled Tchaikovsky, who has nagging stomach pains that probably aren’t helped by the fact that he must live his life as a gay man completely in the closet, or at least in the homes of his close circle of like-minded companions.
Miliukova is apparently oblivious to this detail, telling Tchaikovsky at their second meeting, “Ever since I first saw you, I’ve wanted one thing: to throw my arms around your neck and miss you. And to marry you.” This freaks him out, of course, but the marriage does seem to be a way to halt the inconvenient gossip and maybe ease some financial pressures, so before long he makes her wish come true – and then immediately seems to regret it with every fiber of his being.
These scenes are rendered in stately, burnished tones, but the music by Daniil Orlov (augmented by snippets of Tchaikovsky’s work) has an astringency and harshness that almost feels assaultive at times; it makes beautiful music feel like a threat, and it fits the feeling of a relationship where the wife is obsessed and wears blinders, and the husband recoils any time she approaches him.
The exact nature of the relationship between Tchaikovsky and Miliukova is unclear, of course, and it was already the source of some pretty ridiculous cinematic fantasizing in Ken Russell’s hysterically florid 1971 drama “The Music Lovers.” Serebrennikov’s take is far less extravagant and more compelling, but the marriage begins and essential ends so quickly that the director begins pushing the fantasy elements: A friend of Tchaikovsky’s, desperate to get her to give up on the marriage, offers her a choice from a group of hunky naked guys at one point; the rustic home of Tchaikovsky’s sister, where Miliukova goes to relax, takes on horror-movie overtones; and those naked guys show up later as a fit of hysteria turns into an elaborately choreographed dance.
It’s a way to convey Miliukova’s descent into madness, a journey that encompasses most of the film’s two-hour-and-23-minute running time. The fantasy elements help keep “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” from becoming as bleak as a Russian winter, but the film remains unforgiving and relentless, and as cold as it is bold.