The perils of a life married into royalty are as tricky for some 150 years ago as they are today
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Cast: Vicky Krieps (Empress Elizabeth), Florian Teichtmeister (Emperor Franz Joseph I), Katharine Lorenz (Countess Marie Festetics), Jeanne Werner (Ida Ferenczy), Manuel Rubey (King Ludwig II), Finnegan Oldfield (Louis de Prince), Aaron Friesz (Prince Rudolf), Rosa Hajjaj (Valerie), Lily Marie Tschörtner (Queen Maria Sophie), Colin Morgan (George “Bay” Middleton)
Known to the world as Sisi, there are few more troubled figures in the history of European royalty than Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Locked into a largely loveless marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph, she struggled with the expectations of her position. She suffered from an eating disorder in an obsession to reduce her waist size, exercising vigorously every day. She was an international icon, formed strong bonds with the Hungarian people, helping integrate them into the Austro-Hungarian empire and her later life was touched with tragedy (including her son killing himself in a murder-suicide pact with his lover) before her assassination.
Only touches of this dynamic story make it into this curious film, that focuses on one facet of her personality at the cost of exploring others. Focusing on the years 1877-78, Elizabeth (Vicky Krieps) is strapped into ever tighter corsets, struggles with “representing” Austria, attempts several love affairs that end in rejection, smothers her youngest child Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj) with affection and is prescribed a new “wonder drug” (heroin) to ease her nerves. While her family despair, she starts to groom her lady-in-waiting Marie (Katherine Lorenz) to stand-in for her at public events.
From a British perspective, pretty clear parallels are drawn between Elizabeth and that icon of 20th century monarchy Princess Diana. Like Diana, Elizabeth’s personal struggles are misunderstood and unsupported by her royal network. An intelligent, passionate woman, Elizabeth stifles under conditions that require her to do and say as little as possible. Her dull, formal husband (Florean Teichtmeister, refreshingly decent and befuddled as the Emperor) merely needs her to wave at events, nothing more. She finds this increasingly oppressive and constrictive.
Kreutzer’s film is a stylish presentation of Elizabeth as a sort of Royal rebel. Drenched in lavender – even the cigarettes she chainsmokes are lavender – Elizabeth takes every opportunity she can to leave the palace, avoids “smile and wave” events and behaves with unpredictability at social events (she’s as likely to laugh and flirt as storm out giving the room the finger). Her fainting could be due to her incredibly tight corsets – or it could just be a way of causing mischief. The system around her simply doesn’t know how to react to someone who doesn’t know herself what she really wants.
Corsage is most engaged with this analysis of undiagnosed depression, at a time when the condition was largely utterly unknown. We can see Elizabeth is mired in misery, but to others she’s merely a self-indulgent, difficult, un-co-operative woman. Shot with a candle-lit intimacy and drained out colours, the film presents the world much as Elizabeth (it suggests) may have seen it. Dark, oppressive and domineering.
Kreutser bravely avoids making her completely sympathetic. The film doesn’t shirk in showing how selfish and self-obsessed she can be. She can’t tell her maids apart (even Franz Joseph is more clued up on their names), bans loyal lady-in-waiting Marie from marrying as she needs her too much and drags her daughter through endless reluctant excursions (including a pre-sunrise horse ride) because she’s more interested in moulding her than listening to her.
Vicky Krieps embodies this prickly personality with huge skill. There are flashes of the sort of person Elizabeth could be. She frolics playfully for an early film camera in the countryside and comes flirtingly to life with two potential lovers, an English riding instructor “Bay” (played with bashful charm by Colin Morgan) and the man closest to being a kindred spirit King Ludwig II of Bavaria (an ebullient Manuel Rubey). Sadly, Bay is far too cautious to become the Empress’ lover (even when she turns up at his room dressed in little more than her corsage) and Ludwig far too gay (much as he values her friendship).
Krieps performance is full of empathy for her pain. She skilfully communicates her mixed feelings towards her genuinely decent-but-dull husband (Franz Joseph, the sort of man who peels off his fake sideburns and stores them carefully in a box). But also makes her demanding, sullen and frequently rude and overbearing. She lashes out at and banishes from her presence those who ‘betray’ her.
Elizabeth’s status is compared with those in the mental health hospitals she took such an interest in. There women are bound to their beds or dunked in freezing baths to cure them of their lustful desires) and the war wounded. It’s a reminder that things could be a lot worse. But it’s also a reminder of the film’s singular focus, away from the other facets of this woman’s personality. There is no real reference to her efforts to support the Hungarian people, her most successful attempt to break out of the confines of her role. It’s part of the film’s sometimes myopic view of its subject.
Kreutzer’s film is full of style. But it’s sometimes hard to see to what purpose. Much of the music the characters listen to is anachronistic modern pop (performed by period instruments). Locations have been deliberately chosen for their ramshackle, faded appearance, no attempt made to return them to the grandeur they would had at the time. Elizabeth takes dips in a very modern pool and the film closes on a cruise liner that wouldn’t look out of place today. Semi-surreal moments pop-up, such as Elizabeth towering in a small-scale room that may-or-may-not be either a giant doll’s house or a visual representation of her state of mind. But they never quite coalesce into a whole or carry a clear purpose, beyond design flourish.
I think part of this is because the film delves into Elizabeth’s depression but offers little in way of acute analysis as to why she felt like this. With most of the interesting events of her life kept out of the film, we effectively drop into a few years of depression without a wider context of her interests or passions. Elizabeth becomes someone the film defines largely by her position, much as her depressing life did, leaving her remaining a somewhat puzzling enigma.
It culminates in a genuinely confusing, alternate history scenario that I was mystified what the film intended to me to feel about. Does it end on a note of tragedy or triumph? I’ve no idea – and the coda with Krieps dancing confuses me further. It’s a befuddling ending for a stylish film (with a great central performance) but which is often one-note. Eventually you feel you effectively learned everything it had to say after the first few minutes, and its happiness to settle for repetition and style over a more searching study eventually makes it disappointing.