Romy Schneider made such an indelible impact playing Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the “Sissi” trilogy as a teenager in the mid-1950s that not only did the success of the films launch her into the celebrity stratosphere, but they have become a tradition in Austria and other German-speaking countries, airing on television over the Christmas holidays every year to this day. The commercial triumph of the films led to the real Elisabeth’s increased visibility in popular culture, but also the widespread perception of her as a spunky, fresh-faced teen bathed in a romantic Technicolor glow.
Enter Marie Kreutzer, Vicky Krieps, and “Corsage.” This period drama about the so-nicknamed Sissi looks in on the Empress as she approaches her 40th birthday circa 1877. Still impossibly beautiful and intelligent, there’s a world-weariness that has creased her features. No longer holding any real power– Elisabeth’s role in the royal court is strictly ornamental– she finds herself fighting for control over her public image, trying to keep her youthful figure intact through physical activity like gymnastics and horseback riding, and instructing her maids to lace her corset ever tighter. Her choquettish personality just barely masks an exasperation at her current state of affairs.
That’s where “Corsage” differs from the typical biopics. Through Kreutzer’s script and Krieps’ game performance (for which she won the Un Certain Regard Best Performance Prize at Cannes earlier this year), Elisabeth is given permission to exhibit the sort of behavior she hadn’t in previous adaptations of her life story, and certainly would not have been able to in real life. “Corsage” boasts the lavish costumes and detailed production design expected of a period piece (although there’s a dark decrepitness to the sets that doesn’t suggest the splendor you’d typically associate with royalty) but there’s an irreverence that bleeds through the structured royal lifestyle. Elisabeth chain smokes. She flips the bird at the guests at a stuffy dinner party. In a humorous running bit, she always mixes up the names of the women who serve as her maids and dressers. She’s flirtatious to an almost ostentatious degree, and even a little reckless in the ways she attempts to maintain control over her life, whether it’s taking her young daughter out riding in unfavorable conditions, or chopping off her famously long tresses.
“Corsage” is based in fact, but writer and director Kreutzer uses what we know about the real Elisabeth to weave a tale of a woman’s battle to make her life her own while operating under immense pressure– of being a woman and being a public figure– allowing her to reclaim some autonomy in the process. The film is structured more as a series of vignettes, but through Elisabeth’s actions and the often flummoxed response to said actions by those around her (including her husband the Emperor Franz Joseph, played by Florian Teictmeister, and son Rudolf, played by Aaron Freisz), there’s always a sense that time is ticking down, that her options are running out. Kreutzer never writes her as a mad woman, although she draws that comparison in a scene where Elisabeth visits the patients in a hospital. She walks among them with an air of kinship before lying down next to one of the men to share a smoke. Her Elisabeth, rather, is a woman whose social constrictions have pushed her and pushed her until she cannot handle being pushed anymore. The real Elisabeth was assassinated by a passersby at the age of 60. The finale of Kreutzer’s film is wildly fictionalized, but it feels like a release, as well as another way for Elisabeth to manage her own destiny.
As a byproduct of reexamining Elisabeth’s life through a modern lens, “Corsage” also paints her as a woman ahead of her time. This sentiment perhaps manifests itself most strikingly in her marriage to Franz, which lives in some middle ground between contentment and misery. We see her both attempt to make herself desirable to him, and arrange affairs for him so that she could have the freedom to venture off on her own. The film’s most cutesy touch comes in its depiction of Elisabeth’s enthusiastic support for cutting edge technology, in this case, the motion picture camera. A filmmaker approaches her with his invention, wanting to make a film of her. There’s a lot of winking going on in this sequence— at one point Elisabeth expresses that it would be more impressive if the films also had sound— but it also, in a way, encompasses the movie’s whole thesis statement. When Elisabeth asks the filmmaker what she should say, as the films are silent, he tells her, “You can say whatever you want.” The scene then amusingly cuts to Elisabeth mouthing a lot of obviously dirty words, but it is also the release that she has been looking for, and the release that “Corsage” mostly succeeds at providing her: the ability to say and do whatever she wants.
“Corsage” will be released in theaters on December 23. Runtime: 113 minutes.