Corsage: Empress Sissi bends the bars of her gilded cage in this smart biopic

Marie Kreutzer’s canny, creative rewriting of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is a thoroughly modernist vision – and features a superb performance by Vicky Krieps.

4 October 2022

By Guy Lodge

Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Corsage (2022)
Sight and Sound

In Corsage, a dry, wry, winking quasi-biopic of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the anachronisms arrive slowly, subtly and then, quite recklessly, all at once. Does that swimming pool the Empress dives into, with its chrome-plated handrail, not look a bit contemporary for a mid-19th century palace? That modernist doorway inside certainly does. Who knew that Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’ was a prim chamber-music standard in the House of Habsburg? Including the Rolling Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By’ is pushing it a bit, though by the time Marie Kreutzer’s film boldly and wittily departs from biographical record to rewrite history entirely, such era-fudging seems positively cautious by comparison.

When stood, however, beside past depictions of the Empress – famously nicknamed ‘Sissi’, though Kreutzer’s film prefers brisker formalities – 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. For a generation of European filmgoers, the legend of Elisabeth was vividly sealed and illustrated by the trilogy of floridly romanticised Sissi films of the mid-1950s, which starred a teenaged, impossibly beautiful Romy Schneider as a supposedly true-life fairytale princess, and surrounded her with so much sweetened visual and aural viennoiserie that it was easy to forget the real Elisabeth’s life ended in grim anarchist assassination at the age of 60. (The third film in the Sissi trilogy concluded with a sentimentally joyous reunion between the Empress and her young daughter in Venice.)

Corsage coolly takes a seam-ripper to such high-kitsch historical fantasy, even as it constructs its own fiction around how the Empress lived and died – one that grants its heroine both the agency and tragedy denied her by past efforts to cast her, sometimes quite literally, as a dainty porcelain icon. Whether or not Kreutzer’s film presents us with the ‘real’ Sissi, eons after the death of anyone who could testify either way, is moot; the point is that this Empress, as tartly, cannily played by the emphatically un-Schneider-like Vicky Krieps, at least feels like she could be real, possessed as she is of perverse intelligence, petulant independence and a palpable libido.

For starters, this Empress is older than the Sissi films ever permitted her to get. The year is 1877, and she regards her approaching fortieth birthday with the same thin-lipped moue of discontent that she does most aspects of her lavishly serviced but joyless courtly life – from her diet (minimal) to her political duties (even more so) to her relationship (barely detectable) with cold-fish husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister). Is that all there is? If so, Elisabeth tallies the contents of her life to an obsessively precise degree, logging her weight and dimensions on a daily basis, insisting her handmaidens give not so much as a millimetre as they fasten her corset, practising and timing to the last second her ability to hold her breath underwater. Why? Let it be said that no detail is irrelevant in a film as fastidious as it imagines its subject to be.

But then Corsage releases her, bit by bit, from the prisons of both her palace and her history. She cuts her high-piled hair and relaxes into heroin; on hearing rumours of her dalliance with dashing riding instructor Middleton (Colin Morgan), she decides to live up to them. There’s even a tattoo planted on her shoulder, though Kreutzer’s postmodernism steers largely clear of the adolescent punk vibrancy of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). From the bleached, lineny tones of Judith Kaufmann’s camerawork to the calm, cutting strut of Krieps’s performance – her best since her international breakthrough in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), in a film even more fascinated by her stoic but quizzical features – Corsage asserts its contemporary perspective with an ironic propriety.

It maintains that veneer of good behaviour through to its fully radical final act, in which a whimsically but intricately planned climactic caper builds, most unexpectedly, to a full rewrite of Sissi’s own last chapter – a fiction that feels, by this point, truer to its reconstructed portrait of a woman determined to live, breathe, speak, fuck and, if it comes down to it, die on her own terms. With elegant insouciance, Kreutzer and Krieps give us a royal actually worthy of a mantelpiece figurine – not that this Empress would have stood for such frippery.

► Corsage is in the Official Competition at the 2022 London Film Festival, and is screening on 6 and 7 October.

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