Back when art-house movies played full-time in art houses, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” at least on paper, might have seemed a film of middlebrow commercial hooks — the sort of movie that would have slipped into the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and played there comfortably for a month or so. The first hook, of course, is Tchaikovsky himself, the Russian composer who created works of such timeless and popular beauty that he is always in danger, in an odd way, of being underrated, like the Spielberg of longhairs. Tchaikovsky’s short-lived marriage, to Antonina Miliukova, was both a disaster and a semi-scandal, but the time now feels ripe for a rediscovery of this tragic episode, which hinged on Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and the fact that he agreed to marry as a desperate closeted strategic ploy. That the late 19th century was a time when even an artist of his magnitude could not live openly, and women as a “class” were every bit as restricted in their choices, sounds like fodder for a biographical drama that could touch on issues of repression and liberation in our own time.
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” however, is not that movie. Even if there still were a Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, I’m not sure what the audience there would have made of it. The film was written and directed by the dissident Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov (“Petrov’s Flu”), and though it seems to be a movie about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Antonina Miliukova, with the story of their relationship told from her point of view, it’s a drama of dour and often impenetrable obscurity. For a while, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” looks like the gloomy Slavic version of a “Masterpiece Theatre” movie. Then it becomes a jumbled allegory of patriarchal power and reactive feminine mental illness, only to turn into an is-this-real-or-is-it-fantasy? descent staged by what appears to be the world’s most pretentious music-video director. The picture, in a word, is a dud. Yet everything about it that’s unsatisfying is also weirdly intentional. At times it seems to be saying: Welcome to the post-art-house art cinema.
Not to sound like I’m stuck in the 19th century myself, but what’s missing almost entirely from “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is any organic sense of human psychology. The film opens in Moscow in 1872, when Tchaikovsky, in his early 30s, is already an established composer and growing national legend. Yet despite his success, he has trouble making ends meet. Odin Lund Biron plays him as an addled but personable gentleman, conservative in his trim brown beard, and when he’s approached by Antonina (Alyona Mikhailova), a former student, he doesn’t know what to make of her. That’s because she’s completely and inexorably enthralled by the composer, ready to devote her very existence to him, yet despite her beaming, stalkerish vibe, she tells him that she knows nothing of his music or his fame. She is simply … in love.
Tchaikovsky, showing something that approaches common sense (the last time we’ll see that quality in this movie), rejects her offer of marriage. He tells her, with a glass-half-full honesty, that he has never loved a woman in his life. (It’s true, but he doesn’t say why.) Yet she persists, sending him a love letter she copies out of a book and making it clear to him that she’s got a dowry of 10,000 rubles that will come from the sale of some forest land her family owns.
Seduced by the money and wooed by the purity of her infatuation, he agrees to marry Antonina. But from the moment they’re hitched, in a ceremony and dinner her own sister describes as feeling more like a funeral than a wedding, the union is doomed. As the dowry payoff proves trickier to realize than promised, Tchaikovsky finds himself gripped by anxiety and unable to compose. The marriage isn’t helping him — it’s dragging him down. And he never comes close to sleeping with Antonina. When she takes that matter into her own hands, panting with desire as she approaches him in bed, he recoils in horror.
There has been one memorable big-screen drama about Tchaikovsky: “The Music Lovers” (1971), which is arguably Ken Russell’s finest film — purple in its passion but traditional enough not to drown in his penchant for over-the-top excess. Russell showcased the composer’s music, in particular his Piano Concerto No. 1, as a surging-yet-tormented expression of his sexuality, and Glenda Jackson played Antonina with a glorious overdose of soap-opera intensity. It’s not a film for everybody, but what is one to make of “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” a two-hour-and-23-minute movie in which there is virtually never a moment when we hear Tchaikovsky’s music, and beyond that almost no sense that Serebrennikov has any interest in Tchaikovsky’s music? Sorry, but is that too square a thing to complain about?
There’s a good scene set in the parlor of Nikolay, a florid gay associate of Tchaikovsky’s who surrounds himself with young men and paintings of male nudes, and we begin to get a taste of who the composer might be inside. To depict this in a film made in the Russia of today takes courage.
Once the marriage ends, though, about halfway through, Tchaikovsky more or less drops out of the movie. The charismatic Alyona Mikhailova is left floundering, as if she were acting in a paper-shredder remake of Truffaut’s “The Story of Adèle H.” There’s a bizarre scene in which Nikolay has six men undress in front of Antonina and has her choose which one she wants to sleep with. (When the door simply closes, the implication is that she chose … all of them?) This makes almost no historical or dramatic sense, and it’s merely the segue to the most obfuscating section of the movie, in which Antonina, devoutly refusing to divorce Tchaikovsky, undergoes her descent — not just into squalor and poverty but mental illness, which involves the film staging scenes that we can’t be sure are actually happening. The question that haunts “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is the one that was there from the beginning: Why does Antonina fasten onto Tchaikovsky and never let go? It sounds like a fair question, but not when you start to realize that it has no answer.