Composer, conductor and teacher Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky struggles against his homosexual tendencies by marrying, but unfortunately he chooses a wonky, nymphomaniac girl whom he cannot satisfy.
Ken Russell’s fourth feature film was the bizarre and excessive musical biography of the life of 19th century Russian piano teacher/composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky – a homosexual (portrayed by a sexually-conflicted Hollywood actor, Richard Chamberlain, who came out of the closet in 2003). Other Russell music-themed films included: The Boy Friend (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1974) and Lisztomania (1975).
In the opening sequence of this surrealistic fever-dream of a movie with numerous musical montages, Russell introduced all of the main characters (in the composer’s present and future). Drunken homosexual Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his lover Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable) joyously raced up and down an icy toboggan slide run during a Moscow winter carnival, to the accompaniment of “Dance of the Clowns” from The Nutcracker Suite. Afterwards, the two inebriated men jumped into bed together.
Nearby, where Russian soldiers paraded on horseback, young conservatory music student Antonina Milyukova (aka Nina) (Glenda Jackson) (Tchaikovsky’s future sex-crazed wife) watched and became infatuated (with a manufactured wild fantasy in her head) with one of the mounted lieutenants (Ben Aris), whom she later invited to her place where she was sexually ravaged.
In the next sequence, many of the characters then reassembled at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky debuted his Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor, including many of Tchaikovsky’s “loves” – his music, and other characters including Tchaikovsky’s semi-incestuous sister Sasha (Sabina Maydelle) and his widowed, wealthy art patron/benefactress Madame Nadedja von Meck (Izabella Telezynska).
The main focus of the biopic was Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his own repressed sexuality. The self-denying musician chose to engage in a disastrous marriage of conformity and convenience to admirer Nina – to counteract and deflect damaging rumors. He impulsively married her after receiving a crazed love letter in which she threatened to kill herself: (“You were frank with me and I owe you a similar frankness. My first kiss will be yours and no one else’s. I can’t go on without you so it maybe that I’ll soon put an end to my life. Let me look at you at least once and kiss you, so that I may take that kiss with me into the other world”).
Director Russell also engaged in fantastic imagery, including a traumatic flashback scene as a young boy, triggered when Tchaikovsky confused a bathing female with his mother Martha (Consuela Chapman), who succumbed in a scalding hot bathtub from cholera. And in his first meeting with Nina, Tchaikovsky envisioned her as his sister.
His homosexual lover Count Anton suggestively stroked a phallic-shaped bottleneck, and later cautioned against the marriage: “Not all women are satisfied with spiritual relationships.”
In one of the most controversial sequences, their overnight train journey to Moscow of unrequited love, honeymooning Nina exhibited her alcohol-fueled, voracious (nymphomaniacal) sex drive by kissing him and stripping off her many layers of clothes. At one point, she lifted up her red garment three times to have him look at her genitals. The newly-wed couple were encased in a cramped sleeping compartment, and as the car violently heaved back and forth, the drunken, nude, and semi-unconscious Nina rolled and flailed around on the carpeted floor. The repulsed composer reacted with bug-eyed horror to her full-frontal nakedness.
Director: Ken Russell