Vicky Krieps stars in Corsage, a witty take on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Corsage is the latest film from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, a period piece it stars Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread, Old) as Empress Elisabeth ‘Sisi’ Habsburg of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Whilst the real figure led a famously glamorous but troubled life, this is a revisionist bit of drama based on Kreutzer’s own reimagining of the famous figure. Some real events from her life are used, but much is fabricated and twisted with no regard for historical accuracy or anachronisms.
We open in 1877, Vienna and the eve of Elisabeth’s 40th birthday, which she laments is the age at which women ‘disappear.’ Long famed for her glamour and good looks she is becoming increasingly self-conscious; demanding tighter and tighter corsets and less and less food. She fakes sickness to get out of public appearances and refuses to have her portrait painted. Elisabeth chooses to surround herself with a series of male admirers, her cousin Ludwig (Manuel Rubey) and horse trainer Bay (Colin Morgan) among them. She is painfully reliant on their praise and compliments, demanding attention from the men in her life where ever she goes.
Elisabeth feels increasingly stifled by her life at court and strains against the restrictions imposed on her by her gender. She is clearly very accomplished, with a mastery of gymnastics, fencing, riding, shooting and an interest in modern technology. She switches between half a dozen languages with ease and is highly opinionated no matter what tongue she is speaking. While she pleads with her husband Emperor Franz Joseph to include her in his political discussions he refuses, and she chafes that ‘’my only duty is having my hair braided.’’ With an increasingly tenuous hold on her sanity Elisabeth and her ladies in waiting head out travelling and we follow a year in her life as she begins to suffer a breakdown.
Much like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette Corsage is a purposefully modern slant on historical figures, full of winks, schemes and middle fingers stuck up at the camera. It is also, similarly, a study on the cult of celebrity and how nothing really changes. The Habsburg family are the superstars of their day, constantly under scrutiny for their looks and adorning themselves with fake beards, teeth and wigs, even the youngest of them carefully maintaining an image out of fear at how their character will be recieved by the general public.
Krieps is extraordinary. Kreutzer has created a multi-faceted, truly feminist Elisabeth out of a figure who has so frequently been evangelised as a girlish romantic figure. Krieps is at turns intelligent, charismatic and capable of enormous empathy and humility. The coin flips and she is outright spiky, cruel and prone to tantrums. Her descent into mental illness is portrayed with a sort of nihilistic inevitability, as we see a woman who does not fear the dark places in her mind but has rather lived and made peace with them. The film is Krieps’ alone to carry and she does it incredibly well.
Corsage’s final scenes are satisfyingly surprising, the final twists and turns taking the viewer in a genuinely unexpected direction, one that almost feels as though it borrows from modern psychological thrillers. Whilst the real end to the Empress’s life was suitably dramatic (she was assassinated in a case of ‘wrong place wrong time’) Kreutzer rewrites it to something much more poetic, but retains that sense of tragedy.
An interesting portrait of a character who is both a victim of circumstance and of her own mind, Corsage is a fascinating study powered by a brilliant central performance. A unique reimagining of a historical figure amidst a deluge of stuffy period dramas with nothing to say, Kreutzer’s film has some bite.
Corsage was reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival, it is expected to have a general release in December 2022