The last two times the Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov had films playing at the Cannes Film Festival, he couldn’t attend. He was under a travel ban in Russia as part of a conviction for fraud in what was widely protested as unwarranted repression of the arts in Russia. Last year, Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most celebrated directors of film and theater, appeared at a Cannes press conference by FaceTime.
But after fleeing Russia in March once the ban ended, Serebrennikov was in Cannes Wednesday to premiere his latest film, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife”, which is competing for the Palme d’Or. It’s a period film that challenges state propaganda, which has attempted to hide that the famous Russian composer was homosexual. In 2013, Russia enacted a law banning “gay propaganda.”
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife”, a fiercely political film made by one of Russia’s most prominent filmmaking dissidents, arrives in Cannes while Russia’s war rages in Ukraine and Europe has redrawn its cultural borders.
“I take filmmaking and theatre-making and culture-making as a big, vast statement against war,” Serebrennikov said in an interview Wednesday on a Palais des Festivals balcony ahead of his film’s premiere. “War is about killing people. It’s about destroying everything. It’s about taking people not like persons but like crowds. They put them easily into the fog of war and don’t care about anyone, any fragility of each person.”
His film premiered on the festival’s second day, which opened with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the gathering in an address that referenced films like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and urged filmmakers not to “stay silent.”
Serebrennikov’s very presence at Cannes has been charged. Some in Ukraine has called for a boycott of all Russians at the festival and other major artistic gatherings. Cannes organizers elected to ban Russians with ties to the government but not filmmakers.
Still, Serebrennikov is one of the only Russian filmmakers in Cannes this year — a role he doesn’t relish.
“If you asked me on the 23rd of February if war possible with Ukraine, I would have said, ‘No, never. It’s not possible.’ But it’s happened. My motherland destroyed another country,” says Serebrennikov. “It’s very painful, it’s very sad. It’s a catastrophe for all people, for Europe, for both sides. Not only for Ukrainian people but in Russia, as well. A lot of people can’t say anything. And sometimes, powerlessness and speechlessness is much more painful. Now, Ukraine is one nation fighting an enemy.”
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” stars Alyona Mikhailova as Antonina Miliukova and Odin Biron, an American actor who has acted in Russian television, as Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It was partially financed by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux said the festival wrestled with whether to include the film in competition, ultimately deciding to because it counters Russian state narratives and it was shot before the war and subsequent sanctions.
To Serebrennikov, his film — which doesn’t attempt to shroud Tchaikovsky’s sexuality — is about “the fragility of the human soul.” It’s made from the perspective of Miliukova, who’s shown as ardently devoted to the composer despite his complete disinterest in her. She spends much of the film in her own kind of exile from Tchaikovsky.
Serebrennikov compares the standard Russian view of Tchaikovsky to that of monuments or idols.
“I just wanted to tell something important for the nation might be a life, not like propaganda, a (expletive) monument but something real,” said Serebrennikov. “Some people are really scared of reality. It’s why they prefer to pray for their idols and their monuments are made of iron instead of love.”