Royalty. Can’t live with them. Can’t stop making films about them. If it isn’t The Queen or the Netflix series The Crown, it’s Spencer. And now Marie Kreutzer’s new film Corsage puts on the crown with a spirited and witty take on Empress Elisabeth of Austria – better known in Europe as Sissi. It’s a bold move as Romy Schneider still reigns supreme in many imaginations as the iconic Empress.
The year is 1877 and the city is Vienna. Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) has been criticised for her interest in Hungary at the expense of the Austrians. She is about to celebrate her fortieth birthday and is rigorously tormenting her body, starving herself of everything but wafer thin slices of fruit, keeping a strict exercise regimen and having herself screwed into the tightest imaginable corsets.
Despite these efforts, the politicians can still wound her with their tactless comments on her appearance which suggest that even the most powerful women are basically vulnerable to being de-pegged once or twice in an instance. Such a veiled attack occurs on one visit and causes her to faint. But any sense that this is going to be a tale of a butterfly victim passively crushed under the wheel of patriarchy is wittily dispensed with, when in the next scene Elisabeth teaches one of her male admirers how to faint convincingly.
Krieps’ royal is a woman on the verge of a midlife crisis rather than a nervous breakdown. How does she use the power she has to do practically everything but only within the role prescribed for her? As her husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) with a pair of magnificently fake whiskers, her job is to represent; his job is to command. It is a role she baulks at. So she’s off to England for some horse riding with her dishy riding instructor; or fencing, or doing gymnastics, smoking cigarettes.
The Empress takes delight in visiting lunatic asylums in a way that smacks less of philanthropic concern, than a certain morbid fascination. She barks at the servants and demands total loyalty. When an old confidante has the opportunity to marry, she gives zero fucks in letting her know that it is not going to happen. Interestingly, her relationship with “F.J.” as she occasionally calls him is not dismissed. She’s a narcissist who will take devotion where she can get it. As she says to one prospective lover, “I like looking at you when you look at me.”
Kreutzer employs a variety of subtle anachronisms – servants wearing modern glasses, a concrete wall here and there – to allow herself and Krieps the freedom to introduce a modern sensibility that sticks a middle finger up at the polished production design of most films of this genre as casually as Elisabeth does at the decorum of her courtly life. The use of modern music played by court musicians feels overfamiliar to the point of cliché (it was never bettered than with the use of Queen in A Knight’s Tale anyway).
But let’s come back to Krieps and her glorious, occasionally moving, and beguilingly charismatic performance. She plays Elisabeth as a woman trying to free herself not just from her royal role but from an ennui based on privilege. In this, she represents more Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth than Kristen Stewart’s more recent royal. Her way out will be an audacious escape from history just as the film escapes the corset tight constraints of the royal biopic.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 17-28 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty