The long take: misrepresentation in perpetuity

A little knowledge can be dangerous when it comes to the truthful content of a biopic.

Corsage (2022)

Biopics are not to be trusted. Historical truth can be elusive in any light, but awkward biographical facts have an even more awkward tendency to be minimised, glamorised or blown out of all proportion somewhere between the research stage and the final cut. Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (2022) is transparently dishonest in that regard. This captivating film is a barely believable portrayal of the notorious figure known as Sissi, who reigned as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the latter half of the 19th century. It thrives on anachronism, wrapping its heroine in a timelessness that creates tangible immediacy. This Sissi (Vicky Krieps) has a tattoo, listens to rock music and makes obscene hand gestures. She’s more or less a punk princess, a century out of kilter. As Guy Lodge wrote in his review for this magazine: “Corsage seems less like an audacious aberration than an attempt, if not to correct the record, at least to balance out the mythology surrounding its subject.”

Sissi has been much written about and much filmed, most notably in a lavish trilogy of German biopics made in the 1950s and starring a young Romy Schneider. The first Sissi-pic was likely 1921’s Kaiserin Elisabeth von Österreich, co-written by and featuring the empress’s niece, Marie Larisch, playing herself. The film’s aura of authenticity was risky: fraudsters attempted to sell stills from it as genuine photographs of Sissi. There are photographs of her, of course, but no film footage of the empress is known to exist. She was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898 when the medium was still a mere infant, but the birth of film was a long, complex process and Corsage imagines a different reality.

In Kreutzer’s film, which takes place in 1887 as the empress turns 40, Sissi meets an intriguing stranger while visiting England. A Frenchman named Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), upon meeting Sissi for the first time, announces: “I have developed an apparatus that can capture moving pictures.” Indeed he did, and if you look online you can see reconstructions of the ‘films’ Le Prince made on his patented 16-lens machine in 1888: one of traffic crossing Leeds Bridge and another of a group of people dancing in a Yorkshire garden. This creation of just a few frames of movement, glimpses of Victorian England at work and leisure, have meant that Le Prince is regarded by many as “the father of cinematography”. There’s no evidence that Sissi met Le Prince, however, and as part of the film’s devotion to deflection, Kreutzer as good as admits that the episode is a fantasy when the inventor is shown brandishing a strip of celluloid film, something Le Prince never did. His moving images were captured on paper, too fragile to be repeatedly projected. It ’s a miracle that any survived at all.

Corsage (2022)

In Corsage, the empress finds sitting for her portrait in oils tedious, but is nevertheless charmed by Le Prince’s invention and allows herself to be captured by his “apparatus” as they lark about in the open countryside. Her carefree poses create an implication that Le Prince’s informal, living record is somehow more authentic than the static portraits she usually has to have done, which make a fetish of her corset-bound waist and her long, long hair. If you watch Corsage knowing how many times the empress’s image has since been reproduced and recreated for the camera, these scenes are given a raw poignancy. Here is the ‘real’ Sissi, intimate and in motion, a flesh-and-blood person who exists for our gaze, rather than someone confined in her royal finery or reimagined decades later on a movie set. If you know that these images would have been more fragile than nitrate film, that poignancy runs deeper still. The film seems to seal Elisabeth’s destiny – to be misrepresented in perpetuity, despite her efforts.

Le Prince’s presence in the film strikes another chord, also. And here be spoilers, for readers who haven’t yet seen Corsage. While history records that the empress was to live for another two decades after the events of the film, what happened to Le Prince remains a mystery. The inventor and filmmaker was last seen boarding a train to Paris in September 1890, ahead of a planned trip to the US. He never reached the friends that he was supposed to meet in the capital and his body was never found. Well, a corpse was taken from the Seine, but the identification was dubious.

There are multiple theories about Le Prince’s fate – and some are very far-fetched. Some suspect he killed himself, or was murdered by a relative. Others said that he simply ran away to avoid family conflicts. The most outlandish story is that Thomas Edison, who was very protective of his own patents in the US, arranged to have him killed. Le Prince’s appearance in Kreutzer’s film brings with it connotations both of reproduced images and of a sudden, mysterious vanishing. Enjoyably, Corsage follows this trail of suggestion to an illogical conclusion in its very fictional finale on the ocean. We all bring our own idiosyncrasies into the cinema with us. When I saw Corsage, I arrived knowing far more about the inventor than I did about the empress. Perhaps that gave me a hint of how her story might end. When it comes to biopics, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

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