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Corsage (Film Review)

3 min read

, from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, reimagines the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who at the age of 16 was thrust headfirst into the formal, stifling Habsburg court life through her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. Similar in some respects to the artistic license employed by Pablo Larraín for Spencer, Kreutzer uses a mixture of fact, fiction and imagination to free her subject from the tyrannies of her gilded cage.

Audiences may be vaguely familiar with the Empress – her very existence is inexorably tied to the beginnings of the First World War and the tragic events of the Mayerling Incident that saw the murder-suicide pact of the Empress' only son and his lover. Yet Corsage is not about either of these events, and nor is it about her eventual assassination at the hands of an Italian anarchist. Instead we see the Empress – portrayed by art-house darling Vicky Krieps – at her most frustrated, constricted by her oppressive surroundings and her tightly bound corsets. Trapped by duty.

Renowned for her beauty and spirit, Kreutzer delves deeper here, exploring the Empress's life-long depression and eating disorders. ‘Sissi', as she was known, was rumoured to weigh around 115 lbs, and her frequent exercise and demanding beauty regimens would not look out of place on an Instagram reel. There are subtle nods to our current climate of celebrity worship, with the Empress equal parts delighted and irritated by the gossip and attention she receives. Does she really just want to be thought of as the most beautiful woman in the world? Krieps captures this conflict superbly, at times seeming flattered, bored, full of life or totally listless. As her mental health declines – to use an appropriately modern label – we see the Empress become at once too big for her ornate palace rooms and lost amongst the deteriorating surroundings of an Empire in decline.

A women dressed in an 1800's period outfit has to crouch in a tiny room.
mk2 Films

For a public figure so frequently, and perhaps inaccurately, portrayed on stage and screen, Kreutzer's use of stark backgrounds gives the feel that we're behind the scenes, watching the life of the Empress unfold backstage as well as in the spotlight. There are a scattering of contemporary fixtures left in – a push-bar door, a mop bucket – as if by accident. It's a bold approach that gives the its modern edge – promoted by its punchy marketing – but one that perhaps belies the sadness of it all. In attempting to give the Empress her agency, the film must forgo some of its historical accuracy and imbue Sissi with modern thoughts and feelings to accompany her known sadness. The result is a surprisingly effective and affecting mix. But not one that screams “fuck the system”.

A women in a black dress and veil sits at an extravagant dining table.
mk2 Films

Whilst Kreutzer's film is daring at times, whether it can be labelled truly unconventional is a question to ponder. Revisionist period pieces are nothing new – see Sophia Coppola's playful Marie Antoinette from 2006 for example. Yet they are becoming increasingly common. Yorgos Lanthimos supplied 2018's Oscar-winning The Favourite with his irreverent brand of dark humour and Anya Taylor-Joy injected some much-needed life into the JACU (Jane Austen Cinematic Universe) in Autumn de Wilde's 2020 film Emma. For every success the world is inflicted with an unknown number of soon-to-be-cancelled streaming shows attempting to ‘subvert' audience expectations and capitalise on trends. Through no real fault of its own, Corsage suffers from a slight sense of fatigue.

Where it ultimately sits in this landscape is up to each individual viewer. Its visual language is stunning, framed exquisitely and with a 35mm texture that gives it real beauty. Krieps too is a marvel, at the centre of a complicated film about a complicated figure. Catapulted onto the map by 2017's Phantom Thread, performances in M. Night Shyamalan's campy Old, Mia Hansen Løve's Bergman Island and now Corsage should solidify the actress as a legitimate art-house attraction going forward. She already has her own Girls on Tops tee. But there's a nagging sense that Corsage, in sacrificing some of the more salacious and eventful aspects of its subject's life, has left just a little on the table.

Corsage is in cinemas from Monday 26 December