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Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), the focus of writer/director Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, isn’t that big a deal outside the Germanosphere. Inside it, though, it’s a different matter. A huge number of documentaries have been made about her in Germany and Austria, going all the way back to 1921. The interest remains fervent in the 21st century. So far this decade she’s made an appearance in no less than five Austrian/German dramatisations of her life – as well as Corsage, there’s the TV series Sisi; feature Elisabeth; another TV series, The Empress; and another feature, Sisi and I (whose release date got bumped when Corsage came along).

What’s the fascination? Maybe it’s that she, along with her husband Franz Josef, was at the head of a glorious German-speaking empire, one whose history does not carry a historical taint. Maybe it’s that the multi-national, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nature of the Austro-Hungarian enterprise provides a template for how to do these things. Maybe.

Corsage? Strange title. There is no particular emphasis on corsages in this film. (1. a spray of flowers pinned to a woman’s clothes. 2 the upper part of a woman’s dress – according to my dictionary.) Corsets, plenty of those, and in fact they are to a large extent what Elisabeth’s life was about, lacing herself into an incredibly restrictive garment so as to maintain her girlish shape. In this film, as in real life, Elisabeth barely eats, weighs herself constantly, and exercises hard. She loves to be told how young and slim she is.

The corset is the metaphor. This Elisabeth is a familiar figure – the royal victim, bound inside a system that expects much of her, at exactly the time when the press and its public are beginning to expect more of their royals than the gracious regal majesty act.

The Empress is a metaphor. She’s the woman trapped in her situation, a woman of wit and intelligence, interested in the world, longing for more and bumping her head against the ceiling (literally at one heavy-handed point) of royal life. Ignored by her husband, Emperor Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister), belittled by her son, Crown Prince Rudolf (Aaron Friesz), she’s even sneered at by one of her husband’s servants (who gets an “Arschloch” in return, but even so…).

A smoking Elisabeth stands by a window
Elisabeth: an empress but powerless

Corsage is a “year in the life of” story, following the Empress from benign neglect at home, through a number public engagements (which she tries to duck out of), into a couple of possible affairs, the first with her riding master in England (Colin Morgan), the other with Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), the inventor of a moving picture camera.

There is a read-across to other trapped royals. Like Princess Diana the Empress seems to feed on misfortune and regularly visits mental asylums (where the women are treated noticeably more harshly than the men, and often for conditions that aren’t mental conditions at all – like a lack of marital fidelity). Like Marie Antoinette she’s in the gilded cage, is misunderstood for political reasons and is the victim of her own celebrity.

Kreutzer’s film is a coded portrait of modern royalty, modern celebrity, in which the victim has conspired in the building of their own prison and is now complaining bitterly about not being able to get out of it. In the words of Freddie Mercury she wants to break free.

There is no Queen on the soundtrack, but Kreutzer purposefully lays on the anachronism – a song by Kris Kristofferson here, one by the Rolling Stones there, Elisabeth giving the middle finger as she leaves a room full of diners.

Director of photography Judith Kaufmann makes all the palaces and grand buildings, often noticeably the worse for wear (anachronism again?), look sumptuous, and Vicky Krieps is regal as Elisabeth, steering her interpretation of the monarch away from entitlement so as to keep her sympathetic.

The film’s done well at the festivals – best film at the London Film Festival – but I didn’t feel it at all. In fact I paused it briefly at one point to look at the review tally on Rottentomatoes. Overwhelmingly positive. Oh well. There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing at all. But it’s nowhere near as good as Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet, a strange film of immense subtlety. Here, Corsage makes its point forcefully and stylishly in the opening scene, then continues to make it, the same message reiterated. Life’s tough at the top, doubly so if you’re a woman.

Corsage – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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