Empress Elisabeth of Austria was a figurehead in her country for 44 years, and being thrust into the limelight with that level of celebrity placed a great deal of pressure upon her carefully balanced head. She was at odds with the unfriendly atmosphere at court, making her a sought-after icon of rebellion for the screen (see The Empress series on Netflix). In this film, Austrian director Marie Kreutzer brings her semi-fictional, semi-biographical take to the cinema.
Corsage is a fitting title for the restrictive life of its heroine, following her adulthood as she turns 40 and questions her place in this ceremonial role. Either by its former definition of a bodice- she subjects herself daily to a tightening corset that leaves marks on her skin- or by its new purpose- she serves merely as an adornment to her husband in public affairs. Having suffered from health issues in the past, Elisabeth uses this to her advantage by fainting to avoid public appearances, electing to lounge about in private and joke with her cousin instead. Now, her subjects judge her, her children don’t need her, and her husband angrily dismisses her political contributions; her life is hollow and ornamental.
Much like the stereotype of the New Woman that began a decade later in 1880, Elisabeth relishes her independence – riding a black stallion with passion and rage, chain-smoking, fencing, and flirting with other men (including a riding instructor played by Colin Morgan). Every move she makes is met with derision, even from her son and daughter, already conditioned with a sense of decorum and duty that comes across as depressing in ones so young. Travel only brings temporary relief as she visits Bavaria and Northampton to escape the palace, but she still is surrounded by an entourage picking up on her every faux pas. Even her closest friends are ladies-in-waiting, obliged to follow her selfish pursuits and their power dynamics are ever-present. She even prevents her friend from accepting a proposal in one painful scene.
Kreutzer’s dislike of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) has been noted. Still, it is impossible to avoid the comparison when French singer Camille’s contributions to the soundtrack float anachronistically throughout to give a modern sense of Elisabeth’s womanhood. In one particularly memorable dinner scene, she leaves with her middle finger raised high to those at the table. However, while there is a youthful vibrance of Dunst’s Antoinette, Vicky Krieps brings a mournful sense of mystery to the Empress, which, combined with a darker colour palette, brings about a more oppressive and dispiriting atmosphere. While beauty and luxury bring about distraction in Marie Antoinette, it is an inescapable point of difference for Elisabeth, whose age and weight are the subject of celebrity gossip and whose fashion keeps her from her subjects. As she floats like a violet fairy through a mental asylum, one gets the sense she finds kindred spirits among her subjects but can only reach out to them so much within the confines of her status.
The Empress’ eating disorder and depression are presented carefully and neutrally in a way that informs but doesn’t excuse her reckless decision-making. Being pulled into the orbit of this magnetic performance, it feels like Elisabeth reveals as much as she hides, wearing an inscrutable expression to mask her character’s increasingly chaotic and dangerous actions. The delicately shaped script accentuates this allure “her soul is like a museum,” and “I read her like a book, a riddle on every page” and is matched by the subtleties of Krieps’ performance as she adjusts her dynamics of dialogue, movement and expression to match whoever she is acting against. These many masks are slipping as the story progresses, but there are nuances in how she chooses to rebel against every person that pins her down like an ornamental butterfly.
Focusing on a year or so of her life, Corsage loses a bigger-picture approach that could explain the youth that created this mid-life crisis. Every moment loses a sense of context, giving a scattered energy that disrupts the flow of the story. In media res, storytelling is a challenge that Kreutzer just about misses here, though perhaps it is a testament to the portrait she creates that one wishes to see more of the Empress, to see what could have gone differently.
The fractions of intensity and personality in Corsage provide a sense of disorientation and a slight mystery. With the enigma that made her Phantom Thread character so enrapturing, Vicky Krieps leads Marie Kreutzer’s sonata with elegance and unpredictability.
Corsage showed as part of the 2022 London Film Festival, winning Best Film at the festival.
Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.