Who was Antonina Miliukova? Enfant terrible in Russian cinema Kirill Serebrennikov examines Tchaikovsky’s life through the eyes, not of the genius composer, but of the woman he married to hide his homosexuality and protect his family.
Half a century after the Soviet biopic of Igor Talankin (1969) and pathetic symphony by Ken Russell (1971), Tchaikovsky’s wifethe first of 21 films in the competition for the Palme d’Or, promises a more intimate insight into Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky’s short and catastrophic marriage.
“It’s not a biopic, he’s not the main character. It’s a movie about a few episodes of his life and about a woman who was obsessed with him.” explained to AFP Kirill Serebrennikov, during an interview conducted in April in Berlin, where he is now installed.
“It shows her version of events, and it’s interesting because Antonina Milioukova is a completely forgotten character,” continues the director for who this film is “the beginning of a long journey” in the world of the composer Swan lake.
“A terrible lie”
A few years ago, when Serebrennikov sought public funding for this film, ex-Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky (currently head of the Russian delegation to negotiate 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 privacy”, he specifies. For him, his intimate life remains “Unknown to Russians like Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy”.
Serebrennikov rejects any sensationalism in his film and says that he wants to show in part how this tumultuous relationship was also a source “inspired by his extraordinary works”.
If the composer’s homosexuality had been known for a long time, passages from Tchaikovsky’s letters published without censorship for the first time in 2018 revealed his heartache or his desires for men.
“I met a young man of striking beauty (…) after our walk, I offered him money, which he refused”, he wrote in 1880 to his brother Modeste, also gay and librettist of his opera The Queen of Spades. That same year, he describes his servant Alexei Sofronov, his lover and then faithful friend, as “an angelic being” as he would like to be “the slave, the toy, the property”.
These passages had been censored after his death, first by his brothers and then during the Soviet era. “So far, many people do not believe it and see it as an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the best Russian composer.” told AFP Marina Kostalevsky, professor of Russian at Bard College in New York, who co-published the letter collection.
According to her, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova, a former student of the Moscow Conservatory, who had sent him a letter of admiration because “he would be normal in the eyes of society”.
“I want to get married or have a public relationship with a woman to shut up with all these bastards whose opinions I do not care about but who make people close to me like” he wrote to Modeste in 1876.
But the composer “quickly understood his mistake (…), he described to his brother Anatoly what torture it was to be with her and that he found her physical closeness disgusting”, explains Marina Kostalevsky. He even tries to kill himself in a freezing river.
And Antonina Miliukova? For a long time, cinemas attributed all her Tchaikovsky’s ailments to her and called her crazy – he even called her a “viper” – but today the research is more nuanced.
IN Antonina Tchaikovskaya: The story of a forgotten life by Valery Sokolov, the author “trying to show that she was not this monster described by certain cinemas”, says Professor Kostalevsky. Antonina’s life, which ended in a psychiatric hospital, “was completely destroyed”.
Despite the shortness of their cohabitation – they would never divorce – it was during this period that the composer created one of his masterpieces, the opera Eugene Oneginaffected by this impossible relationship.