sun 29/01/2023

Corsage review - Vicky Krieps is superb as Empress Elisabeth of Austria | reviews, news & interviews

Corsage review - Vicky Krieps is superb as Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Corsage review - Vicky Krieps is superb as Empress Elisabeth of Austria

No ordinary period drama: Marie Kreutzer's brilliantly inventive portrait of a royal rebel

Woman on the edge: Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria©Robert Brandstaetter/MK2 Films

“At the age of 40 a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud,” says Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, played by a mesmerising Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) in Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s brilliant, fictionalised portrait of a woman whose main duties are to have her hair braided and stay thin, eating only orange slices for dinner. If her looks fade in this circumscribed royal world, what will be left of her?

The action takes place over several months in 1877-8, in Vienna, Bavaria and England, as Elisabeth's 40th birthday comes and goes. Again and again, we see her corset strings being tightened by maids, some of whom don’t have the necessary strength. “Tighter, I said,” hisses the empress.

Her husband, the Emperor Franz-Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister, pictured below) who removes his mutton-chops when relaxing but keeps on his brocade jacket while having rare and unenthusiastic sex, is humourless and disapproving, as are her children, Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) and prim young daughter, Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj). Bored at dinner, she brings up the delicate subject of turmoil in Sarajevo, which infuriates Franz-Joseph. A woman's voice cannot be heard.

corsageSissi is too wild, too flirtatious, too narcissistic, too much for all of them. She is constantly on the move, fencing, riding, swimming, even dancing in front of a prototype movie-camera. And she's always on the edge, suicidal, stepping out of windows, nearly drowning, shooting up heroin. This is prescribed by her doctor as a novelty on the market, good for all manner of ills and “absolutely harmless”. She’s a dab hand at faking a swoon when royal engagements get tedious, or when someone makes a tactless remark about her weight or complexion.

She believes that only her main lady-in-waiting, Marie (Katharina Lorenz) truly loves her (apart from her dogs, perhaps), which is unfortunate for Marie as the autocratic empress forbids her from accepting a marriage proposal. “My last opportunity,” seethes Marie. Stealing baleful glances at her boss, she writes in her diary: “She is walking a path so narrow only one person can walk it.” But Marie’s role on this narrow path becomes more substantial than she could have imagined.

Sissi (a very different portrayal from that by Romy Schneider in the wildly popular eponymous 1955 German film trilogy) needs, more than anything, to be admired. She cannot exist without the male gaze, even as she resents her own powerlessness. “I love to look at you looking at me,” she tells her British riding instructor, Bay (Colin Morgan). “Do you remember me? Last time I came you said I was beautiful,” she urges a catatonic man when visiting a mental hospital, where, dressed all in purple, she dispenses candied violets.

She lets go a bit when visiting her cousin Ludwig of Bavaria (she’s always desperate to get away from home) who likes to party, though he lusts after stable boys rather than women. They swim in the dark – “I forbid you to drown in my lake,” he tells her. “I prefer the sea anyway, “ she replies - and dance to “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, strummed on a ukelele.

This is disconcerting but oddly effective, as is hearing “As Tears Go By” with harp accompaniment a little later (Kreuzer, whose sixth feature this is, has said she had no interest in making a classic period film with a classic score, but wanted to use instruments that existed at the time). Other anachronisms include a plastic bucket and mop, electric lights and a telephone, as well as a lack of royal furniture and interiors that aren't of the period. There's a whisper of early Peter Greenaway as well as Pablo Larrain's Spencer and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette in the air.

Ludwig pours chocolate into Sissi’s overflowing mouth and she starts to hatch a plan that will allow her to break out of her restrictive diet - and her life. Bring on the cakes and cream. The real empress was never seen in public after the age of 40 without a veil, and Kreutzer takes this fact and runs with it. What if Elisabeth disappeared altogether? She’s already taken control of her husband’s latest dalliance - “I want you to be his mistress,” she instructs the young girl. “Expect him in your bed without your corsage” – and now she hacks off her mass of hair. “It’s as though a part of you had died,” says the emperor. Prophetic words. This exhilarating, beautiful, inventive film, with its great depth of colour and luminous cinematography by Judith Kaufmann, shows us a woman determined to live, or die, on her own terms.

Comments

All I thought after seeing this boring and self-indulgent, mawkish film was « how on earth did so many people get duped into thinking this was worth their time and effort, let alone money? »

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