Who was Antonina Miliukova? The terrible child of Russian cinema Kirill Serebrennikov examines the life of Tchaikovsky not through the eyes of the brilliant composer, but through the eyes of the woman he married to hide his homosexuality and protect his family.
Half a century after Igor Talankin’s Soviet biopic (1969) and Ken Russell’s Pathetic Symphony (1971), Tchaikovsky’s Wife, the first of 21 films in the running for the Palme d’Or, promises a more intimate look at Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s brief and disastrous marriage.
“It’s not a biopic, he’s not the main character. It’s a film about some episodes of his life and about a woman who was obsessed with him,” Kirill Serebrennikov explained to AFP during an interview conducted in April in Berlin, where he is now installed.
“It shows her version of events and is interesting because Antonina Milioukova is a completely forgotten character,” continues the director, for whom this film is the “beginning of a long journey” in the Swan Lake composer’s universe.
“A Terrible Lie”
When Serebrennikov applied for public funding for this film a few years ago, former culture minister Vladimir Medinsky (currently head of the Russian delegation to the negotiations with Ukraine) “wanted us to follow the Soviet version of the composer’s life, he says. But this movie is a terrible lie.
In Russia, “Tchaikovsky is a monument that has not suffered, that has had no private life,” he specifies. For him, his intimate life remains “just as unknown to the Russians as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy”.
Serebrennikov refutes any sensationalism in his film and says he wanted to show in part how this turbulent relationship was also a source “of inspiration for his extraordinary works”.
While the composer’s homosexuality had long been known, passages from Tchaikovsky’s letters, published uncensored for the first time in 2018, revealed his lovesickness or his longing for men.
“After our walk I met a young man of striking beauty (…), I offered him money, which he refused,” he wrote in 1880 to his brother Modeste, also a homosexual and the librettist of his opera La dame de pique. In the same year he described his servant Alexeï Sofronov, his lover and then faithful friend, as “an angelic creature” whose “slave, plaything, property” he would like to be.
These passages had been censored after his death, first by his brothers and then during the Soviet era. “So far, a lot of people don’t believe it and see it as an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the best Russian composer,” Marina Kostalevsky, a Russian professor at Bard College in New York, told AFP Letters.
According to her, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova, a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, who had sent him a letter of admiration because “he wanted to be normal in the eyes of society.”
“I want to marry or have a public relationship with a woman to shut up all these bastards whose opinions I don’t care about but who make people close to me suffer,” he wrote to Modeste in 1876.
But the composer “quickly realized his mistake (…), he described to his brother Anatoly how tormented it was to be with her and that he found her physical closeness repulsive,” explains Marina Kostalevsky. He even tries to kill himself in a freezing river.
And Antonina Miliukova? For a long time, biographers attributed to her all of Tchaikovsky’s ailments and called her crazy – he himself called her a “viper” – but today the research is more nuanced.
In Antonina Tchaikovsky: A Story of a Forgotten Life by Valery Sokolov, “the author tries to show that she wasn’t this monster described by certain biographers,” says Professor Kostalevsky. Antonina’s life, which ended in a psychiatric hospital, was “completely destroyed”.
Despite the shortness of their life together – they will never divorce – the composer created one of his masterpieces, the opera Eugene Onegin, during this period, influenced by this impossible relationship.
Who was Antonina Miliukova? The terrible child of Russian cinema Kirill Serebrennikov examines Tchaikovsky’s life not through the eyes of the composer genius, but of the woman he married to hide his homosexuality and protect his family. Soviet biopic by Igor Talankin (1969) and Ken Russell’s Pathetic Symphony (1971). ), That…
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