Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov has premiered three films in Cannes competition, but walked the red carpet at the festival for the first time this week. In 2017, Serebrennikov was convicted by Russian authorities of an embezzlement scheme associated with his theater company and banned from leaving the country, a decision that angered human rights groups who alleged the charges were fake. When the sentence was lifted at the start of this year, Serebrennikov resettled in Germany while finishing his new drama, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” just in time for the film to play at Cannes.
Sitting on a balcony at the festival the day after his premiere, Serebrennikov said that even though leaving Russia meant that he had to abandon his 90-year-old father, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine expedited the filmmaker’s decision to move away as soon as the law allowed for it. “If you live inside the war, and you understand you’re inside the war — for a person like me, that’s very painful,” he said. “I had to say, ‘Fuck the war, I hate you, bye.’ You can’t be silent about this war.”
Nevertheless, Serebrennikov faces a complex situation at this year’s Cannes, which issued a ban on Russian delegates and journalists from pro-Putin publications but permitted Serebrennikov’s film in competition because the production pre-dated the war in Ukraine.
Though it was not funded by the government, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” — a grim exploration of the famed composer’s estranged spouse — has been criticized for receiving financing from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Facing sanctions from the British government, Abramovich has been trying to sell his Chelsea football club, and European authorities have been attempting to seize his yachts (none of which have been spotted in Cannes yet). The presence of the project at the festival has raised questions about whether it violates the French government’s policies about assets of people under European sanctions, though it was still still unclear if any funds associated with the production from Abramovich’s fund would be frozen within France.
During a press conference for “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” Serebrennikov defended Abramovich, calling him a “a real patron of the arts” and called for sanctions on him to be lifted. The comment brought extreme backlash in many quarters; on Saturday, Polish director Agnieszka Holland condemned the remarks and said Cannes should not have invited a Russian film. In his interview with IndieWire later that day, Serebrennikov said he was not invested in the financing process for the movie and didn’t even know how much it cost to make. “I just spent the money,” he said.
He disputed the position of many Ukrainians in the film industry that the mere presence of Russian cinema at the festival amounted to an endorsement of the war. “I can see why they say this because everything is very painful for them,” he said. “Even hearing the Russian language is very painful for them because of the war. I understand that and accept this. But we can’t stop language, we can’t stop music, we can’t stop staging, we can’t stop cinema. Can you explain to French people that now at this very minute they have to avoid Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky — and forget them all? Of course they won’t, because it’s a part of their consciousness. It’s not so easy to cut off Russian culture when it’s part of global culture.”
Serebrennikov’s film is itself a complex interrogation of Russian cultural history, as it explores an aspect of composer Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s biography that tends to be deemphasized within the country. Actress Alyona Mikhaylova delivers a tender and sad performance as Antonina Miliukova, who marries Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron) out of admiration for his work then struggles to come to terms with his closeted sexuality. Eventually, she’s driven to a state of mental illness and nymphomania as the movie enters her troubled mindset.
“Nobody knows about it,” said Serebrennikov, who based dialogue on the film on letters and interviews obtained from Tchaikovsky’s archives, most of which are in the United States. “Tchaikovsky became a great genius, and now Russia is proud of him, but traditional power wants to hide the dark spots of his life — his sexuality, and that he was a fan of monarchy. It was not good for the Soviet period. His biography is almost destroyed by cutting out phrases from his letters and quotes. It’s all damaged by people who live in modern times. That’s why I wanted to tell this true story.”
There is a growing political consciousness in Serebrennikov’s work. His 2018 Cannes entry “Leto” followed the controversies associated with Leningrad rock musicians in the 1980s, while last year’s “Petrov’s Flu” satirizes the chaos of modern Russian life. Prior to the war, he was already in production on his biggest undertaking to date, “Limonov,” an English language drama starring Ben Whishaw as the radical Russian poet who fled to U.S. (The film is being previewed to buyers at the Cannes market.)
“I’m trying to shoot films about people who have their own relationship with the government,” Serebrennikov said. “They riot against the system. I don’t like the word dissident but there is no other word for people who started their own rebellion against the state of things.”
Serebrennikov said he only began to question the government himself when censorship laws lifted during the Perestroika period. “I started as a victim of propaganda,” he said. “I was a child coming up in the Soviet Union. Later, new freedoms came, and this time changed me with a lot of literature and films that had been forbidden. It was like an explosion of everything. This punk reality formed my consciousness.” With Putin’s rise to power over the past 20 years, Serebrennikov said his creativity was politicized. “With everything coming back to this new edition of Soviet Union, all of my art has been standing against it, trying to fight it somehow and stop this shit,” he said.
He recalled watching Russian TV reports taking aim at his theater productions as he started tackling more controversial subjects. “The question was, ‘Do we need theater like this?,’” he said. “As the poet [Joseph] Brodsky, who escaped the Soviet Union in 1972, said, ‘I have a stylistic agreement with Soviet power.’ That’s probably what it is. They hate what I do and they think that I’m destroying Russian culture.”
Still, Serebrennikov did not believe all government-financed films should be censored. “If it’s not a propaganda film, no,” he said. “Propaganda is always about the ideas of the government. True art films are about the vulnerability in every human being, about the value of each life.”
As for his future, Serebrennikov said that he was putting himself at risk just by mentioning the war. “Just to call the war a war is very dangerous now in Russia,” he said. But was he planning to go back? He gestured over his shoulder, where a line of yachts were parked against the glimmering Mediterranean sea. “I’m here,” he said. “I have no idea. Never say never.”
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.