Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Principessa Sissi in Italy (where she is revered), still regularly features on chocolate boxes in cities such as Turin and Trieste. Thanks to the huge popularity of films about her featuring Romy Schneider, not to mention an Italian-French cartoon series depicting royal intrigue and the love story between the plucky princess and her beloved Franz, Sissi remains enthroned as the people’s princess for many Europeans. But they will be in for a surprise when they get to see Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s fabulous Elisabethan drama with an outstanding and positively regal performance from Vicky Krieps.
Kreutzer has chosen to focus on Elisabeth as a middle-aged empress. The corsage of the title refers to the corset our heroine wears, struggling to maintain her girlish and seemingly improbable 18-inch waist as her 40th birthday looms. Elisabeth is cranky and contemptuous, regally haughty and prone to fits of pique. But if you were forced to be imprisoned in a tortuous corset every day of your life, you’d probably have a few hissy fits yourself.
The corsage is not the only thing restricting Elisabeth. Her whole life is one of constraints and denial. Elisabeth was brought into the family to add a touch of glamour to the Habsburg dynasty, but as her looks begin to fade, the family’s need for her starts to wane too. Elisabeth is shamed about her looks and her ageing – her portrait artist notes the lack of a youthful glow on her skin, the handmaids struggle to do up her corset, her doctor mentions that she has reached the age of an Austrian woman’s life expectancy. The empress is in constant battle with her body as she chain-smokes and exercises, pinched and in pain, dealing with the onset of old age whilst simultaneously fearing an unwanted pregnancy.
Parallels can be made to Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, which showed Princess Diana brought in to jazz up a doughy family – a family that despises her despite acknowledging its need for her – and who struggles with her self-image and her gilded cage. Yet where Larrain’s Diana could see no way out, Kreutzer’s Elisabeth is made of sterner stuff. She is a maverick princess, doing things her way. In one scene she arrives at a state dinner, veiled and mysterious – like Death – and proceeds to smoke her way through the courses, offering barbed remarks to her husband and guests. Her husband, Franz Joseph (the excellent Florian Teichtmeister) is a philanderer who keeps a young mistress in Vienna and with whom Elisabeth enjoys only brief moments of intimacy.
Elisabeth also has her paramours – there’s a strange relationship with a handsome Hungarian count (Tamás Lengyel) and some serious flirting with her dashing riding instructor – but this film is about a woman who is really on her own. She lives a nomadic life that takes her from palace to country estate across the continent as far as England. But however far she travels, the restraints remain firmly in place.
The film is about constraints and restrictions, but it is also about subterfuge and spectacle. Elisabeth is often veiled and a reason for this is that it makes her lady-in-waiting’s task easier when attending public functions in her boss’s stead. Kreutzer shows how Franz Joseph too must put on a show. When he reaches his private rooms, he unglues his false whiskers like a weary repertory actor after a gruelling performance. When Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting asks to be released from her work in order to marry, the empress refuses, selfishly wanting to keep her doppelganger in her employ.
Though the film could be compared to Spencer, there are a few similarities with Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in that Kreutzer is happy to add touches from the 21st century to her historical drama. She does this through the use of music, location and some of Elisabeth’s decidedly modern pastimes. Far from rankling, these additions help to shake the woman free of her chocolate-box image and provide a fresh and more honest portrait of this beloved and little-known people’s princess.
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