Tag Archives: C+

CORSAGE

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

Grade: C+

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.  

EMPIRE OF LIGHT

Producers: Pippa Harris and Sam Mendes   Director: Sam Mendes   Screenplay: Sam Mendes   Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Monica Dolan, Sara Stewart, Ron Cook and Justin Edwards   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C+

The Empire cinema in Margate—a seaside town on the Kentish coast of England—during the early 1980s is the focal point of Sam Mendes’ film.  The art deco palace, just across from the beach, might be somewhat rundown, but it remains a refuge for customers, who enter it leaving their outside lives behind to revel in the dream world of films as varied as “The Blues Brothers” and “Chariots of Fire.”  But it’s also a refuge of sorts for its staff, the major characters here—though, as events would show, an unreliable one.

That’s especially true for its manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a punctilious woman whose air of precision masks her deep insecurity.  She lives a solitary life, and her occasional visits to a local dance club are effortful responses to her therapist’s suggestion that she get out and meet people.  She’s also on a regular lithium regimen, though it’s clear that she’d rather not be.  She’s been hospitalized before for mental problems, and she’s clearly nervous that they might recur (as is her assistant manager, sensitive Neil, played by Tom Brooke).

Hilary’s precarious situation isn’t improved by the fact that Ellis (Colin Firth), the arrogant owner of the theatre, periodically summons her into his office, purportedly for business discussions but actually because he’s using her to fulfill his sexual needs.  That explains why when Ellis and his wife (Sara Stewart) come into a restaurant where Hilary is sitting alone at a corner table, she quietly leaves, embarrassed. 

The arrival of a new addition to the theatre’s team of ushers changes matters.  Stephen (Micheal Ward) is an engaging young black man whom Hilary rebukes at one point for mocking a patron, but comes to regard with affection when she shows him the abandoned ballroom on the building’s upper floor.  They find that one of the pigeons that congregate there has a broken wing, and Stephen’s bandaging of the bird impresses her; together they’ll keep watch until it’s able to fly to freedom again. 

The symbolism of that little operation for what happens between them is rather heavy-handed as they enter into a romantic relationship that has a salutary effect on her.  But her illness proves intractable, as an angry explosion that occurs even during their time together makes clear.

Their relationship also has to contend with the racism Stephen faces at a time when economic distress and crude nativism have led to acts of intimidation and violence.  The reality is expressed in ways both subtle—Stephen withdrawing his hand from Hilary’s shoulder when a fellow passenger on a bus observes them quizzically, his being berated by a nasty moviegoer (Ron Cook) for prohibiting him from bringing his fish and chips into the theatre, his applications to architecture school getting casual rejection—and not, as when he’s accosted by skinheads on the street.  But Mendes takes things to extremes when a bunch of rowdy demonstrators attack the Empire, breaking windows and sending the staff fleeing in fear. 

That scene is unfortunately characteristic of the last act of the film, in which Mendes opts for big moments that come across as overblown, most notably Hilary’s decision to inject herself, melodramatically, into the “regional gala premiere” of “Chariots of Fire” that Ellis has turned into an event designed to reinvigorate his theatre.  The sequence simply doesn’t play as catharsis, though one can understand its purpose—to act as an exclamation point to Hilary’s final rejection of her boss’ abuse, while also marking her renewed descent into a state that will lead to another bout with institutionalization. 

That’s juxtaposed with another sequence in which Hilary finally asks Norman (Toby Jones), the “keeper of the flame,” as it were, in the immaculate old-fashioned projection booth where celluloid magic runs through the perfectly maintained machines, to screen a film for her.  (She admits that she’s never watched a movie there before.)  So she sits enthralled as “Being There” unspools and Peter Sellers seems to walk on water.  Presumably that title is meant to do many things—point up Hilary’s solitary existence (she’s alone in the auditorium), as well as the otherness she shares both with Stephen and with Chance the Gardener.  But it’s also designed to emphasize the magic of cinema, which can take us beyond ourselves.

Then there are the scenes in which Hilary says farewell to Stephen, who’s finally off to college, or Stephen encounters her some time later, after her release from the hospital, arm-in-arm with a lovely girlfriend (Crystal Clarke); the moment is strained.

There are many strong elements here.  Mark Tidesley’s production design, which concentrates on the Margate beachside but especially the old dream palace that was refurbished for the film, its red velvet seats, burnished wood framing and metal accessories restored to something like their former glory, and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are captured in rich, glossy images by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, emulating the look of films of the past.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds to the mood of an age long past while also complementing the more darkly dramatic moments.

Among the actors, Ward is impressive as Stephen though his role is basically reactive, and the ever-reliable Jones is gently steadfast as, so to speak, the voice of the medium, making even Mendes’ poetic flights regarding the technology Norman oversees bearable.  All the supporting cast is excellent, with Hannah Onslow and Tanya Moodie standing out as the Empire’s punkish usher and Stephen’s mother, respectively, though those playing nameless bigoted thugs are just conventionally nasty. The standout, though, is undoubtedly Colman, who adds to her gallery of sharply-etched performances with a gripping one of a woman on the edge desperately trying to retain her balance in the face of deep mental disturbance. 

It is, in fact, as a portrait of a person plagued with mental illness that the film is most effective. Mendes’ attempt to amplify it with a panoply of climaxes toward the close muddies the waters rather than expanding the impact, and even Lee Smith’s supple editing can’t conceal the debilitating structural weakness.