Corsage: Beyond biography

2 December, 2022

In the more than 130 years that have passed since her death, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sissi, has remained a major female icon in the European imaginary, just as she was during her lifetime: an archetypal symbol of the 19th century’s beauty standard. In the modern era, her image adorns countless souvenirs and foodstuffs (ranging from chocolate pralines to luxury brands of ham) – and the audiovisual medium has also proven to be fascinated by her: from the four times that she was performed by the legendary actress Romy Schneider (in Ernst Marischka’s Sissi trilogy and Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig) to the Princess Sissi animated series, which most girls born in the nineties watched with bated breath in their childhood. All of these created a lasting image in the collective mind: that of the gorgeous, young noblewoman with boyish and adventurous tendencies, humanistic and generous, close to nature and animals, a polyglot and gifted diplomat – in short, an image of perfection which, while based on the historical accounts of her life and personality, does not act subversively upon the concept of the imperial(ism), but rather, as a humanizing force, weaponizing her (somewhat) small transgressions from the performance of her female gender role and the strict rigors of the court.

Lately, it seems that Elizabeth is enjoying a resurgence in her audiovisual popularity: just in the last two years, two series (Sisi, The Empress) about her life have been released, and next year. Sisi & Ich, told from the perspective of her lady-in-waiting, Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, will be hitting cinemas. But the most popular of all the recent releases is Corsage, the latest film by Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer, which premiered this spring in Cannes. In this free adaptation of Elizabeth’s life, Vicky Krieps (who won a well-deserved Best Performance award in the Un Certain Regard section for her role) portrays an Empress caught in the throes of a mid-life crisis, gripped by despair as she turns 40, an age that the film will follow from one end to another. Caught between the obligations entailed by her role, the obsession with her appearance (both her own and that of others), perpetual wanderlust, and various flirtations, Elizabeth sinks tighter into depression as she asks her handmaidens to tighten her corset increasingly.

We are, then, in 1877/78 – as such, at a ‘blind spot’ in the Bavarian princess’s well-known biography: more than a decade has passed since their defeat in the Austro-Prussian War by the forces led by Otto von Bismark and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and since the formal proclamation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, around the same time that Maximilian is captured by Benito Juarez’s forces and executed in Mexico, while the suffocating Empress Mother Sophie has already been dead for some years, just as her first daughter, that bore her name. Of course, all these events have strong echoes in the film: among other things, Sissi has a scene in which, in a firm tone, she tells Franz that she is the one solely in charge of raising the heirs; after the death of the first child, her mother-in-law had exercised almost complete control over the upbringing of the other children. At the same time, she is aware of the role she has played in her relations with Hungary, particularly with Gyula Andrassy: “I have given you a kingdom [Königreich]” she says to her husband, in another scene. At the same time, we still are way ahead of the tragic last decade of her life, in which the better part of her family (her parents, two of her sisters, and especially her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in a double suicide) dies within the span of a few years, along with her beloved Count Andrassy, culminating in her assassination by an Italian anarchist in Geneva.

Still from Corsage (2022), by Marie Kreutzer.

Corsage shows us an exceptional character in unexceptional circumstances – well, as unexceptional as witnessing the opening of the massive Kunsthistorisches Museum can be – a strategy that is tried and tested by modern arthouse biopics, that are increasingly distancing themselves from the typical tropes of the genre. No longer do we see the life of a notable historical figure on fast-forward, crammed into a mere 120 minutes and reduced to essentials (read: to its most dramatic and iconic moments), but, instead, we take a peek at brief periods that they spent on earth and at the little (iconoclastic) things that bring them closer to us mere mortals. We see Sissi chainsmoking, escaping the castle at night to go horseback riding, showing her cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria how to faint his way out of undesirable situations, initiating sex with Franz Josef, or masturbating to the thought of an impossible love. This is the film’s humanizing strategy: representing all these transgressions, these mundane gestures, these hidden things that fracture the pure, compliant, almost allegorical image of the Empress at the risk of violating biographical rigor, but with a very clear stake in mind – beyond overturning the usual paradigms in which she is portrayed, the main aim is to create a feminist discourse surrounding Sissi by revealing an image of hers that, according to traditionalistic logic, is inaesthetic.

As a matter of fact, the whole film is underpinned by small anachronisms and liberties in the interpretation of Elisabeth’s biography, some of them even taboo: such as the hypothesis that Franz Josef did not in fact love her, beyond her beauty (“My job is to rule the empire, yours is to represent it, that’s why I chose you,” he cruelly tells her at one point), but also other theories that verge on conspiracy, such as that of a love affair with Ludwig II. (Perhaps the most poignant moment of this kind comes in the first half of the film, when a French nobleman uses a contraption that he has put together to shoot a film with Sissi, more than two decades before the brothers Lumiere invented the cinematograph. ) We also get to hear a few echoes of the great war to come: some turmoil in the southern regions of the empire brings the name of Sarajevo to the lips of the imperial family, which sounds especially fateful when spoken by Rudolf, whose suicide would later sow one of the seeds of the conflict that erupted with the assassination of his cousin, Franz Ferdinand. A few formal choices reinforce these iconoclastic stakes: the soundtrack is also anachronistic, like in Marie Antoinette (dir. Sophia Coppola, 2006, another film that rewrote the story of an iconic queen), with its melodramatic pop melodies giving the story a markedly contemporary feel; at the same time, several surrealistic scenes show Sissi growing to supernatural proportions, her rooms in Schoenbrunn Castle reduced to mere dioramas.

There are two distinct options for those that have already been won over by the myth of Sissi, and who will go to see Corsage in theatres: they will either leave feeling at peace with the thought that they have seen a film that refuses to sugarcoat the Empress’s life, showing some of its lesser-obvious and familiar corners, or they will be utterly horrified by this profane rendering of her image. As for those who don’t know much about the Bavarian princess beforehand – hard to say, other than they should probably start elsewhere. In the absence of the melodramatic histrionics of Spencer (r. Pablo Larrain, 2021), the dry, subversive humor of Amour Fou (r. Jessica Hausner, 2014), or the sexy naughtiness of The Favourite (r. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018), it’s hard for me to predict what they’ll connect with, other than yet another image of a suffering woman that is surrounded by obscene amounts of wealth.

Corsage opens in Romanian cinemas on the 2nd of December 2022.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.


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