Kirill Serebrennikov, the writer and director, portrays Antonina Miliukova, estranged spouse of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, with deep empathy in his newest film. This role was previously played by Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s 1971 movie, “The Music Lovers”. In Serebrennikov’s interpretation, Antonina is depicted as a self-centered, zealous, naive, egotistical, and indulgent character, who also holds anti-Semitic beliefs. However, she is also portrayed as the most wronged wife of a genius since Sophia Tolstoy or even Constance Wilde.
In the past, this director’s films have often captured the essence of their subjects, resulting in a tense and dramatic portrayal similar to Antonina or Tchaikovsky themselves. However, the movie takes a strange turn when it depicts Antonina as a sexually obsessive nymphomaniac, featuring numerous muscular men in balletic fantasy scenes. It is likely that this reputation was falsely given to Antonina by powerful and jealous men close to Tchaikovsky who wanted to discredit her.
Alyona Mikhailova delivers a remarkable performance as Antonina, a discontented young woman hailing from a struggling and rundown family in Moscow. She briefly studies music under Tchaikovsky and becomes infatuated with him, displaying the same level of religious devotion as the impoverished holy fools on the streets. Throughout the film, she maintains a childlike demeanor. Odin Biron portrays Tchaikovsky as a pompous man who is initially taken aback by Antonina’s bold and desperate proposal of marriage. However, he eventually realizes that her promised dowry (the sale of her family’s forest) could alleviate his financial troubles, and that marrying her would silence the rumors about his homosexuality – which he almost, but not quite, discloses to Antonina before she makes her proposition. He explains that he can only love her “as a brother.”
The film suggests that Antonina is unwilling to accept the truth about her husband’s sexuality, instead clinging to her belief that she is destined to be Tchaikovsky’s wife. She foolishly sees herself as a servant or protector to him, but is instead shocked and disturbed by the rowdy male companions that constantly surround her husband, laughing at things she doesn’t comprehend. Their wedding reception is somber, their physical relationship is a nightmare, and eventually Tchaikovsky recoils from her in revulsion – yet Antonina continues to pursue him with the same intensity as Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction pursued Michael Douglas.
The movie effectively portrays Antonina’s deep sense of isolation as she spends most of her time away from Tchaikovsky, but still feels bound to someone who despises her. The opening sequence features a fantastical scene where Tchaikovsky comes back from the dead to scold those who allowed Antonina to view his body. Unfortunately, Antonina’s emotional well-being is limited to a squalid and unfulfilling relationship with her lawyer. She resigns herself to a life on the fringes of Tchaikovsky’s fame, feeling like an unwanted outsider who had once thought she would protect him.
This is undoubtedly a vehement and very watchable drama – far superior to Serebrennikov’s previous film, the sprawling and unrewarding Petrov’s Flu. If there is a narrowness in its emotional and tonal range, that gives it force.