It’s hard to imagine that anyone could make another movie about 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that’s as febrile and virtuosic as Ken Russell’s “The Music Lovers,” but dissident filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov — freshly released from his Putin-ordered house arrest, but still awaiting trial on ludicrous charges of fraud — has risen to the challenge with his usual aplomb, orchestrating a historical melodrama that’s almost as feverish as last year’s “Petrov’s Flu.”
Then again, Serebrennikov’s film isn’t really about the mercurial gay man who wrote “Swan Lake.” As you might be able to deduce from its title, the morbidly opulent “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is more interested in the obsessive music student who married him. Social conventions of the time are sufficient to explain how Antonina Miliukova remained oblivious to — or in semi-denial of — her husband’s unyielding sexual orientation (even after he set his bed on fire in order to get her out of it), but Serebrennikov is compelled by his heroine’s refusal to accept the intense, lifelong disdain that Tchaikovsky developed for her in the milliseconds after they married.
Was she mad with infatuation over her favorite musician, or did the spiritual Antonina (portrayed in “The Music Lovers” by a nymphomaniac Glenda Jackson) simply reject the idea that Tchaikovsky’s “genius” should allow him to ignore the eternal commitment they made to one another under the eyes of God? Serebrennikov imagines that both might be true at the same time, while the mesmeric Alyona Mikhaylova — embodying her role with the martyr-like intensity of Lars von Trier’s Golden Hearts — allows those two diagnoses to agitate each other into something more complicated.
The result is a movie that constantly dances along the knife’s edge between “hysteria” (in the most outmoded, misogynistic definition of the word) and defiance. Nowhere is that balance more obvious or more thrilling than in the opening sequence, captured in a dream-like long take that dazzles even in comparison to the director’s usual Mikhail Kalatozov-inspired approach to camerawork.
It’s 1893, Tchaikovsky (Minnesota-born actor Odin Biron) has just died of cholera, and the widow who “worshipped” him is trying to make her way through the legions of mourners who’ve come to pay their final respects. When she finally reaches his casket — pushing through a mob of people, and then snaking her way up to the second floor of a jam-packed mansion — the composer leaps out of his casket and demands that his wife leave the room. “What was the point of this vulgar tragicomedy?!” Tchaikovsky’s corpse demands to know.
Antonina’s shock doesn’t stem from the fact that her late husband is now very much alive, but rather from surprise that he isn’t happy to see her; it’s the closest that Russian arthouse cinema has ever gotten to its own “Stacy, we broke up two months ago” moment. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with Serebrennikov’s delirious approach to drama will recognize this encounter as some kind of fever dream, and yet, by the time this movie is over it seems entirely plausible that Tchaikovsky would fake his own death just to get this one woman to leave him alone.
A more lucid person might have been able to predict this one-sided marriage of convenience wouldn’t pan out, but reading the signs isn’t exactly Antonina’s strong suit. From the moment she lays eyes on the much older Tchaikovsky — unaware of his fame, or the rumors that have crept up in the fringes around it — Antonina imprints on the guy like the creature from “It Follows.”
During the composer’s first awkward visit to her apartment, Antonina threatens to kill herself if they don’t get married, and her infatuation only grows more possessive from there. When Tchaikovsky offers her “the love of a brother” in exchange for a wedding ring, Antonina leaps at the chance. Of course, it’s possible that the severe-looking (yet undeniably beautiful) former seamstress is so unfamiliar with the concept of homosexuality that she assumes her feminine charms will be able to overpower the composer’s reservations; after all, she lives in the same country that would later redact any hint of homosexuality from Tchaikovsky’s published diaries for more than 100 years after his death.
Whatever the case, Serebrennikov is less interested in defining Antonina’s perspective than he is in proving her stubborn adherence to it. This aspect of the story — as repetitive as any of the note patterns in Tchaikovsky’s music — quickly begins circling the drain, as Antonina’s refusal to recognize the truth of the situation becomes almost as frustrating for us as it is for her new husband. The natural extravagance of Serebrennikov’s filmmaking is diluted by the forceful oppressiveness of Antonina’s denial, and the writer-director’s aversion to context or character detail leaves viewers little to do but gasp at the incredible sets, and marvel at how Vladislav Opelyants’ camera weaves through them.
It’s only when Antonina’s denial begins to resemble insubordination — when her blind loyalty curdles into a religious zealot’s crisis of faith — that “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is able to push beyond the oppressive boundaries of psychological understanding. Once Tchaikovsky leaves Antonina (without telling her that he’s not coming back) and the six weeks they spent together spill into the more nebulous futures that await them both, Serebrennikov finds the permission he needs to opt for a more subjective approach.
Time becomes slippery for Antonina — starting right at the train station where she’s left waiting for her husband — and her fierce sense of integrity is challenged by a series of increasingly perverse divorce laws and social customs. Infidelity is the only way to annul the marriage, but she chooses not to file charges against Tchaikovsky no matter what he’s doing back in Moscow (out of love more than principle).
More surprising is that the composer returns the favor even after he’s given ample evidence to do so, eventually allowing Antonina’s emerging carnality to erupt into a spectacular, dick-filled, “Madeline’s Madeline”-esque modern dance number that immortalizes one woman’s self-conflicted refusal to be disregarded at the convenience of a single Great Man. Oddly enough, it’s a feeling that Russians of all genders are presumably able to relate to now.
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.