Starring 'Phantom Thread' standout Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, this smartly anachronistic film is no mere dutiful biopic.
February 08, 2023
Britain's two Queen Elizabeths have enjoyed their fair share of film and TV depictions, aided by Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Margot Robbie, Helen Mirren, Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton and more — to name just a few — but they're not the only royals of that first name to grace the screen. While the spelling differs slightly and she's played as more of a Diana-style people's princess in her latest stint in cinemas, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also Queen of Hungary) has received several celluloid and pixel resurrections of her own. Corsage ranks among the best of them, as famed as Austria's Sissi films from the 50s are and as recently as Netflix's The Empress hit streaming, in no small part due to two other outstanding women. One is Luxembourgish actor Vicky Krieps (Bergman Island), who is shrewd, wry and wily as the Bavarian-born wife to Emperor Franz Joseph I. The other is Austrian writer/director Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet), whose handsomely staged and smartly anachronistic feature is no mere dutiful biopic.
Corsage's lead casting is the dream it instantly seems on paper; if you're wondering why, see: Krieps' scene-stealing work opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in 2017's Phantom Thread. Here, she's been earning deserved awards — the Best Performance prize in the 2022 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section among them — for a portrayal that never feels like she's stepping into someone else's shoes or jumping back to the past for a part. Krieps is, naturally. Also, given that Sissi lived between 1837–1898, viewers have no way of knowing how close this characterisation is. But Krieps' fierce, dynamic and layered performance goes far further than easy impersonation, or providing a period-appropriate rendering of the Empress based on how history dictates that women of the era behaved (or what flicks set then or focusing on regal women back then have served up before). Corsage is a portrait of a lady, after all, and not of a time.
There's nothing old-fashioned about Sissi in Krieps and Kreutzer's hands, although the predicament she's in when Corsage kicks off wouldn't have been new in her day: approaching a big midlife milestone birthday and feeling agitated about it. "At the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade," the Empress herself offers. It's 1877, her then 23-year marriage to Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister, Vienna Blood) is no longer lit by sparks, her young daughter Valerie (first-timer Rosa Hajjaj) disapproves of her every move, and much attention — her own and beyond — is upon her appearance. So, she flits restlessly. She can travel, circling around Europe. She can ride, exercise, pal around with friends and reconnect with old lovers. She can enjoy the company of men such as Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield, Final Cut), who directs his motion-picture camera her way, and horseman Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan, Belfast). She can play the starlet part, but also seethe with frustration about the largely decorative nature of her position.
Some of the above genuinely happened. Some of it didn't. The same applies to other aspects of Kreutzer's narrative from start to finish. Fidelity to facts isn't Corsage's primary or even secondary concern, refreshingly so. Also, the film doesn't bother itself with the notorious end to her son's story, with Crown Prince Rudolf taking his own life in a suicide pact. He's still in the movie (as portrayed by Aaron Friesz, Freud), but his tale isn't his mother's. Endeavouring to set a historical figure free from their corset — which is what corsage means in French, not flowers for a formal occasion as the term refers to in English — this flick isn't bound by accuracy or the lives of others. Sissi was bound enough anyway and not just by bodices cinching in her waist down to 19.5-inches and less, as Corsage finds ample ways to make plain.
In too many situations and for far too long, to be a woman is to be the subject of scrutiny — and doesn't Corsage know it. Sissi's roles as a wife, mother, Empress and representative of her countries are the source of constant fixation from all and sundry, with nothing ever pleasing everyone or even anyone much. Her exterior earns the same public obsession. The fact that she shares it is both an indictment of the ridiculous pressure she's subjected to and, in the complicated way of disordered eating, a bid for control. Corsage isn't here to simply spin woe, however. It's too playful and subversive for that. What it recognises again and again is how little agency Sissi had, how she was constantly defined by how she looked, and how one might process, cope with and rally against that truth. A haircut isn't just a haircut here, for instance, but an act of release and rebellion that also inspires tears among her attendants.
Against restrained period fare and reverent on-screen biographies, Corsage is an act of rebellion, too. It isn't quite Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette nor Pablo Larraín's Spencer, but belongs in the middle of the pair. Accordingly, cue the flouting of 19th-century-only sights and sounds, plus a firm focus on conveying Sissi's inner state with every tool at the picture's disposal. Visually, Kreutzer and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann (The Audition) let modern details remain among the movie's settings — doors, lights, powerpoints, mops and more. On the soundtrack, French singer Camille of 'Ta Douleur' fame gets poppy, and covers of Kris Kristofferson's 'Help Me Make It Through the Night' and The Rolling Stones' 'As Tears Go By' get a workout. This tale is timeless, Kreutzer emphasises. The Empress' stresses, sadness, struggles and spirit are as well, her film continues.
Corsage's point of interest is Kreutzer's familiar point of interest: women just wanting to be who they are but constrained by society's rules and expectations. 2019's The Ground Beneath My Feet and 2016's Krieps-starring We Used to Be Cool before that don't toy with real-life figures, but they unpack the same idea. That's an age-old reality, Corsage also reinforces, whether it's sticking close to its star's face, sometimes beneath striking face veils; surveying the punishing act of dressing as an Empress again and again; or stepping back to take in her lavish attire and surroundings, seeing what the world around her sees. Then, when this perceptive treasure comes to its inventive end, it's with an utterly unforgettable reimagining — which, yes, is this feature from the get-go.
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