Corsage review: A smart, defiant period drama
James R | On 24, Feb 2023
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Alma Hasun, Colin Morgan
A gilded cage has rarely felt so big, and so constricting, as in Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s biopic of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Focusing on Sissi in 1877, as she turns 40, it’s a quietly bold reimagining of the past, one that makes its tale of a lonely royal figure feel undoubtedly modern.
If you’re thinking of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Kreutzer wastes no time in steering us in entirely the opposite direction: Sissi’s world of regal opulence is austere and empty, deliberately filmed in palaces that are crumbling and peeling. When we see her riding a horse across the countryside, it’s a wide, isolated spectacle. Her husband, Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), is unfaithful and cold. And her days are bookended by having to fit into her corsage, which squeezes her waist down to less than 20 inches.
That restrictive, oppressive routine, over time, is turned by Sissi into a form of control, and her relationship with food becomes more and more complex, somewhere between anorexia and protest. At the same time, she becomes fixated on how people see her as thin, beautiful and young. She avoids a portrait of her that depicts her real age and flirts with her charming equine instructor George (Colin Morgan) but only to the point of captivating his attention.
Vicky Krieps is remarkable in the lead role, letting all these nuances and contradictions simmer beneath a stoic, withdrawn, enigmatic surface, while still sticking a middle finger up at aristocratic dinner parties and conventions. Her vivid and intimate performance is amplified by the subtle use of anachronistic music – including As Tears Go By and Help Me Make It Through the Night.
The result recalls Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, as Kreutzer paints a slice of period life that’s refracted through a modern gaze. As events increasingly diverge from record, Corsage blurs the line between fact and flights of fancy, whether it’s the mention of moving pictures being invented or one women’s discreet determination to find an escape from the trappings of history.