CANNES, France — The euphoric “Leto,” shown in Cannes a few years ago (and a film everyone in the press room could agree on), “Petrov’s Flu,” in 2021, a hard-to-follow angsty dream of a movie which you might better enjoy on LSD and if you don’t do LSD then it’s OK because watching it will make you feel like you’re on it and this year in Cannes, “Tchaikovsky’s wife” (“Zhena Chaikovskogo” in the original Russian) a period piece shown from a woman’s point of view, the woman in question being a very determined suitor who spots Tchaikovsky at a soiree and asks to be introduced to him, taking a very unwilling composer, en route to glory, all the way to the altar, only to find out he is gay. This is Kirill Serebrennikov country.
Technique is such that the camera follows and circles characters incessantly as they move within the frame. One can’t help but feel that Serebrennikov was influenced by Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.”
Esthetically, there isn’t much useful to say about “Wife” besides that the film is near-perfect (but is any movie ever ?). Each scene could be turned into a painting. Serebrennikov, who is a theater man, is an artisan, a lover of beauty and a culture fiend. For this film, which took years to prepare for, he eschews self-interpretation of Russian history in favor of an accurate retelling.
Odin Biron, who plays Tchaikovsky, wasn’t born in a small hamlet in the Urals but is from Duluth, Minn. He went to Russia nearly twenty years ago and ended up staying. Then one day Serebrennikov offers you to play Tchaikovsky in his next film. For an actor this improbable turn of events must be like hitting the Powerball.
No pressure? As Biron said in Cannes this morning, rather than having to wear the heavy mantle of a cherished composer, the Tchaikovsky role was more about portraying a person who’s solitary, one who orients his entire life toward a single project, music: “this [portrayal] was about the individual, not the genius.” This is not his first collab with Serebrennikov, Biron having sung in one of the songs for “Leto.”
It’s been twenty-four hours since I’ve watched the film, I’ve had a little time to let it sink in and I’m still not able to tell what it was truly about. Was is about Tchaikovsky (his tortured indifference to Antonina, played by Alyona Mikhailova, left a stronger impression than the character itself), was it about unrequited love, or does one woman’s search for a better life through marriage provide the context? These questions probably don’t need to be answered.
Beyond this rich output of filmmaking in recent years, what’s also fascinating about this filmmaker, a Buddhist, is his level of activity elsewhere, from the opera to the theater. He’s worked with the Bastille opera in Paris, the opera in Amsterdam, he’ll be opening up this year’s Avignon Festival with a play called “The Black Monk.”
In 2018 and 2021, Serebrennikov had legal problems in Russia which prevented him from coming. This year things looked up and Serebrennikov was on hand, here in Cannes, to present “Tchaikovsky’s wife.”