When Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was first invited to Cannes in 2016, he was able to accept the François Chalais Prize for The Student in person. But when his next two features, Leto (2018) and Petrov’s Flu (2021), premiered in the main competition, Serebrennikov was stuck in Moscow—not because he was busily overseeing the Gogol Center, the renowned theater he ran from 2012 to 2021, but because he was under house arrest. Having spent five years defending himself against trumped-up charges of embezzlement, Serebrennikov was finally allowed to leave Russia earlier this year, and on Wednesday, he attended the premiere of his new film, Tchaikovsky’s Wife, in the Grand Théâtre Lumière.
As one of the only Russian filmmakers invited to Cannes this year, Serebrennikov has been fielding questions about international calls for boycotts of Russian artists in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “Russian culture is about the fragility of life,” he tells Variety’s Christopher Vourlias. “It’s about people who are under oppression. Who are fighting for truth or justice. That’s real culture. Not ideological culture. Not propaganda. I think it’s not good to boycott this kind of culture.”
On this point, even Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa agrees—and he got himself expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for saying so. Far more controversial is Serebrennikov’s defense of Roman Abramovich, the Israeli-born oligarch who has been sanctioned for his close ties to Putin. Abramovich runs the Kinoprime film fund, which has financed work by Serebrennikov and other filmmakers who have irritated Russian authorities. “He did a lot for independent Russian art,” says Serebrennikov. “He did a lot for contemporary art in general. He did a lot for me, personally supporting me in very dark times.”
Producer Ilya Stewart, who has worked with Serebrennikov since The Student, tells Vourlias that many of “the best—and one might add subversive—films to come out of Russia over the last several years, including films that won awards at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and went on to be shortlisted at the Academy Awards, would not have been made without the support of Roman Abramovich.”
Now Tchaikovsky’s Wife is up for the Palme d’Or, and the first round of mixed reviews suggests that it’s going to be a tough run. The moment Antonina Miliukova first laid eyes on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1865—she was sixteen and he was twenty-five—she was smitten. Years later, she enrolled at the Moscow Music Conservatory just to study under Tchaikovsky. In 1877, promising him a substantial dowry and ignoring his warnings that he would only be able to love her as a brother—as well as his penchant for all-male dinner parties—she persuaded him to marry her.
The marriage was a disaster, and just two and a half months after their wedding, Tchaikovsky left. Several critics point out that this story was told in The Music Lovers (1971), and more than a few express their preference for Ken Russell’s version. “Serebrennikov’s movie imagines Antonina as selfish, fanatical, naive, narcissistic, and self-indulgent, not to say antisemitic, but also as the most wronged-genius wife since Sophia Tolstoy, or, indeed, Constance Wilde,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “As often in the past, this director’s filmmaking inhales or intuits the characteristics of its subject, and so it becomes almost oppressively hysterical and highly strung, like Antonina or Tchaikovsky himself.”
Tchaikovsky’s Wife “spirals into a mess along with its protagonist,” writes Marc van de Klashorst for the International Cinephile Society, and Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell finds the film to be “both elegant and sordid, inviting and repulsive.” For Screen,Jonathan Romney writes that “for all its sometimes-crazed energies, it feels ponderous and overwrought.”
Serebrennikov seems “less interested in defining Antonina’s perspective than he is in proving her stubborn adherence to it,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “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.”
For Jay Weissberg at the Film Verdict, the “real standout, apart from an excellent [Alyona] Mikhailova as Antonina, is the gracefully choreographed camerawork by [cinematographer] Vladislav Opelyants, whose elegant control and gliding movements provide a richness of atmosphere even when the script falters. Clearly influenced by the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte as well as Russian and Nordic nineteenth century artists, his lighting of the largely muted tonalities is a delight for the eye, culminating in a glorious drone shot over a flooded birch forest.”
Whatever the fate of Tchaikovsky’s Wife, Serebrennikov has already begun to work on his next feature, Limonov, the Ballad of Eddie. Ben Whishaw has been cast as poet and political gadfly Eduard Limonov, and Viktoria Miroshnichenko, best known for her work in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole (2019), will play his wife, Elena. After Limonov, Serebrennikov will turn to an adaptation of French journalist Olivier Guez’s 2017 book The Disappearance of Josef Mengele, and he’s still planning a project based on the life of Andrei Tarkovsky, another Russian filmmaker who clashed with authorities and eventually left the country. “I’m going to keep loving my culture,” Serebrennikov tells Vourlias. “To love Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Tarkovsky, and other brilliant artists who made me the person who I am. I don’t want to betray them.”
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