Director: Marie Kreutzer Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Jeanne Werner Running Time: 112 minutes
Most of us know well enough on this side of the Irish Sea that there’s something mortifying about monarchy, a stifling drag performance of power. Corsage literally opens with a royal struggling to breath under the weight of it all, Vicky Krieps’ Empress Elisabeth of Austria holding her breath in the bathtub while her maids count how many seconds she can hold her breath. Through the course of Marie Kreutzer’s film, we see Sisi’s royal life as an extended enduring test for which her patience is wearing thin.
Corsage escapes the pitfalls of period drama with an arch attitude, thanks to clever presentation by Kreutzer an excellent, vibrant performance by Krieps. We get an insight into Sisi’s attitude early doors, after she faints in the middle of a dignitary display – she soon shows her cousin how to fake the whole thing while sharing cigarettes. The Empress’ is a constant source of judgement and speculation; and she’s ever-conscious that in her rarefied air, that scrutiny extends through the past, present and future. Any downturn in her fading marriage to dour Franz Joseph isn’t just a personal disappointment but a potential sea change in the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire. When she passes 40, with all the pointed remarks and change in attitudes that can bring on a woman, Elisabeth bristles further and further at the constraints of the whole institution. Living under an increasing irrelevance turns out to be a hard feeling not to reflect inward.
There’s a tension that tears at Sisi. Used to the good life, she longs for meanignful affirmation and affection but mostly gets cold, transactional servitude or propesterous pomp and circumstance. With her insights ignored and her wits misundestood, especially by her increasingly bewildered Emperor, she’s used to only being praised for her beauty, and Sisi is increasingly fed up with and dependent on the diminishing dopamine effect that praise gets. Standing for hours for portraits while FJ chases younger women, gossiped about for her relationship with a riding instructor whom she doesn’t seem to do it for anymore, royal life in Corsage is given a new dimension in addition to the psychological warfare of Spencer or the empty avarice of Marie Antenoitte – Sisi is increasingly embarrassed, irritated and it’s a mood that Krieps plays sensationally.
The fluster the Luxembourgian actress played so fantasically in Phantom Thread is evident here also, but coming from a character who’s more confident from the outset. The over-it attitude Krieps plays requires a fine balance – Corsage escapes the stuffiness of bad period dramas, and Krieps’ wit is a big part of that – but overdo it and you’re trapped in the irony poisoned well of Netflix’s Persuasion or Bridgerton. When Krieps’ Empress flips off the royal court or defiantly lights a smoke, her narrowed eyes and slumped body language sell it perfectly, she’s too weary to wink at the camera. The film also balances its pace well – Sisi’s endless trips away, each announced with the location and date captioned, feel aimless and unending without making the film feel slow, one part of how the presentation goes a long way here.
The palacial buildings and holiday homes are shot by Kreutzer as they look now, anachronisms left it, paint chipping away, all unremarked upon. The effect of an institution crumbling while no one dares mention it comes through perfectly. Similarly in Vienna, we see the servant’s side of the palace often, bored workers stood rigid outside the doors that Sisi is spiralling on the other side of. These shots, or the way the camera holds pointedly on FJ removing embellishments to his moustache, show this world as carefully constructed artiface – a bucket outside the chamber of the Emperor and Empress arguing suggests that the real work goes into maintaining this illusion, and once Elisabeth sees behind that curtain it starts to strangle her. Kreutzer’s direction is modern, but not because she wants the audience to feel caught up, rather it’s to leave the characters behind. Pinned down and stifled, Corsage is a struggle to wriggle free that comes through with style, with a creative team on fine form as they find the gallows humour in the glamer of glamour.(4 / 5)