Producers: Alexander Glehr and Johanna Scherz Director: Marie Kreutzer Screenplay: Marie Kreutzer Cast: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Alma Hasun, Manuel Rubey, Finnegan Oldfield, Aaron Friesz, Rosa Hajjaj, Lilly Marie Tschörtner, Colin Morgan, Marlene Hauser, Johanna Mahaffy and Alice Prosser Distributor: IFC Films
Elisabeth of Bavaria, who became the wife of Hapsburg emperor Franz Josef I in 1854 and remained empress until her assassination by an anarchist in 1898, has been the subject of numerous films and television series, most notably Ernst Marischka’s Austrian “Sissi” trilogy of 1955-1957, which made Romy Schneider a star playing the young Elisabeth. But there have been many others, from the 1920s to the present—the Netflix series “The Empress” being a notable current example. So is Marie Kreutzer’s film, for which Vicky Krieps won one of the top acting awards at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In chronological terms, “Corsage” is one of the most limited of the films about Elisabeth, theoretically covering only a single year, from the end of 1877 to December, 1878, though Kreutzer’s script is free about what it assigns to those twelve months. That’s characteristic of the writer-director’s audacity, since she’s less interested in presenting an accurate biographical account than in using Elisabeth as an example of how a woman, even one of the highest status, is often stifled in expressing her real self by the social conventions imposed on her gender.
It’s also in effect a tale of mid-life crisis, since it begins in December, 1877, with the celebration of the empress’ fortieth birthday (which, a doctor reminds her in an attempt to convince her to act less recklessly, marks the average lifespan for women in the realm). Her marriage is hardly the youthful romance depicted in the “Sissi” films, and she’s struggling to maintain the glamorous image that has always been hers in public. (That struggle is symbolized by frequent scenes of her ordering the corset she wears beneath her clothes to be tightened to emphasize her supposed slimness—the motif that gives the picture its title. The metaphor is not a subtle one.)
Kreutzer offers scenes involving the rather frosty relationship between Elisabeth and Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister), a stern, condescending fellow dismissive of her opinions on political and military matters while being observed in the company of a pretty young Viennese housewife (Alice Prosser), and others revealing tensions with her children Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) and Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj), both of whom are concerned about her behavior. Her sister and confidante Ida (Jeanne Werner) worries about her as well, and even her most loyal attendants, like Countess Marie Festetics (Katarina Lorenz), are disturbed by her unusual orders.
For one thing, she’s showing reluctance to “represent,” as her husband puts it—to appear in public in properly regal mode; she even does a false faint to escape the duty in one such case. And her queries about Sarajevo annoy Franz Josef as impertinent. (It will help viewers to know something about the emperor’s policies regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina in advance, since the screenplay alludes to them without explaining them. The same is true of the empire’s absorption of the Kingdom of Hungary, and the contentions it caused—an arrangement mentioned fairly often but never explicated.) Her love of masculine hobbies like horse-riding and fencing also sparks criticism.
She also turns heads with her travels, which usually take her to places where she can enjoy dalliances with handsome men—her cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey), with whom she is extraordinarily close, or her English riding instructor Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan), whose friendship is a source of gossip. Then there’s her decision to allow Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield) to try his innovative movie-making machine on her; there are periodic excerpts of films showing her showing off clownishly before his camera.
That’s just one of the many anachronisms Kreutzer indulges in; Le Prince’s earliest cinematic efforts didn’t come until a decade later. And the score by Camille is certainly not of the period; it has a deliberately contemporary edge, and while including an occasional fanfare of the Austro-Hungarian national anthem is also augmented by modern pop songs at incongruous points. Then there’s Elisabeth’s gesture in the middle of another boring dinner (there are so many scenes of eating here that the repeated clank of silverware on china is maddening, both to the audience and presumably to Elisabeth, who after all is trying to keep her weight down), when she suddenly gets up and leaves, giving the other diners the finger as she departs.
All of which, of course, is designed to universalize Elisabeth’s plight, portraying her as the embodiment of women who have been confined by patriarchal expectations throughout history. Even her charitable work—visiting wounded soldiers only to share cigarettes with them, or infirmaries for women with mental disorders caused by the loss of children or the crime of adultery—shows a feminist bent. (Compare the recent films about Princess Diana that emphasize her contact with AIDs patients as a sign of her independence.) Even the elegant production design by Martin Reiter, costumes by Monika Buttinger and cinematography by Judith Kaufmann, which employ many actual imperial locations, occasionally insert visual anachronisms to emphasize that while set in the nineteenth century, the film’s preoccupations are not limited by the timeframe.
Nor by such concerns as pedestrian historical fact. The climax, on a ship carrying Elisabeth on another of her journeys, flaunts the record to provide her with a flamboyant escape from the deadening demands her imperial role imposes on her. One can read the episode as a dream if one likes, cancelling out the last twenty years of her life at a single stroke, but Kreutzer then tops if off with a end-credits sequence in which Elisabeth does a wild bacchanalian dance by the close of which she’s grown a very masculine mustache (though one not much more convincing than Franz Josef’s false whiskers).
By now it should be clear that “Corsage” is not intended to present an accurate biography of Elisabeth, but to employ her as a symbol of the suppression of capable women throughout history. But while one can respect the intention behind Kreutzer’s reveling in the clichés of biographical drama while simultaneously upending them to deliver a feminist message, the stolid, lethargic rhythm that she and editor Ulrike Kofler bring to the exercise leaves the film feeling obvious and heavy-handed.
Nonetheless “Corsage” has many virtues. In visual terms it’s impressive, and Kreutzer elicits competent performances from all her cast. The linchpin of the entire effort, however, is Krieps, who paints a portrait of Elisabeth that resists the romanticism with which she has ordinarily been depicted. This empress is a woman worn down by the demand that she play a role she’s come to find distasteful, by the recognition that the youthful beauty she’s been fabled for has faded, and by the attitude of a husband who seems incapable of real affection, even when he crawls onto her bed. Yet Krieps never appeals for a viewer’s affection; in her hands Elisabeth remains a rather cold, even unpleasant person, using others—her staff, her lovers, even to some extent her children—just she herself is used. It’s an uncompromising performance, which challenges us to like, or even fully understand, her.
That’s an acting choice more audacious than Kreutzer’s overall conception turns out to be.