Vicky Krieps and Marie Kreutzer will be in New York this weekend to take questions about Corsage, their irreverent reimagining of a year or so in the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. When Krieps, who won a Best Actress award when the film premiered in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, first approached Kreutzer with the idea, “I laughed,” the director told the festival, “and said, ‘What for?,’ but the idea grew like a seed inside me.”
That initial laugh, though, is understandable because Elisabeth’s story has been documented, novelized, staged, and filmed countless times before. For good reason: the Bavarian duchess married Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and struggled to be accepted in the Hapsburg court. She lost her baby daughter, then her son, and withdrew from her duties to travel all over Europe. Ultimately, she was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist.
The empress—Sissi to her family and fans—was born on Christmas Eve in 1837, and, naturally, Krieps (who is from Luxembourg) and Kreutzer (who grew up in Graz, Austria) are intimately familiar with the three Sissi movies directed in the 1950s by Ernst Marischka and starring Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm as the royal couple. When Krieps and Kreutzer were young, gathering around the family television to watch these films on three successive nights was a Christmas holiday tradition throughout much of Europe.
The Sissi movies may be beloved, but they’re also undeniably kitschy, and Böhm later sloughed them off, remarking that they conjured “a world of pink marzipan.” Schneider spent much of her later career trying to break free from the role that she said clung to her like Grießbrei, a sticky, cream-of-wheat-like pudding. She did return to it, though, in Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), but only because it gave her an opportunity to explore darker strains in the character. It’s probably beside the point, but nonetheless interesting to note that Kreutzer told Cannes that the film she has likely seen the most times is Claude Sautet’s Les choses de la vie (1970), starring Schneider and Michel Piccoli.
The world of Corsage is made of neither pink marzipan nor Grießbrei. Restless, turning forty, fed up with Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), impatient with her servants—they can’t ever seem to pull her bodice strings tight enough—Krieps’s Elisabeth obsesses over her weight, fences, flirts, rides horses, freely gives the finger to all who deserve it, and travels to England, where she meets Louis Le Prince, who was quietly making home movies long before Auguste and Louis Lumière presented their first public screening.
“Full of odd glitches and deliberate flubs in period detail, the film feels like an invitation into a secret conspiracy to reach back through time and, with deft, irreverent twenty-first-century fingers, loosen the stays on Empress Elisabeth’s corsetry just a little,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety. “Krieps’s secret smiles and sudden outbursts of inappropriate laughter, her mercurial moods and the judge-me-if-you-dare challenge encoded in her gaze, bring [Elisabeth] thrillingly back to life.” While Daniel Kasman, writing in the Notebook, finds that Corsage “struggles to tell a full story rather than showcase dynamic episodes,” he does agree that Krieps’s “empress is a vivid rendition: all her discomfort, flighty moods, and wayward spirit flash and fade across Krieps's face in a role she seems born for.”
Several reviewers mention Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) as films in the same general neighborhood that depict disenchanted and rebellious female royalty. In Cinema Scope,Lawrence Garcia wonders if “embracing this increasingly familiar perspective of knowing irony,” Kreutzer “has not simply traded one representational cliché for another.” But for Keith Watson at Slant, if Coppola “imagined lavish European palaces as the sites of freewheeling adolescent rebellion, Corsage envisions these same corridors as the grandiloquent backdrop of a midlife crisis . . . It’s a work about stultification that never once feels stuffy.”
In the Hollywood Reporter,Leslie Felperin suggests that “without making a big fuss of it, there’s a strong sense throughout that the mostly female key crew members are pulling together to tell this woman-centric story through the lens of female identity—from DP Judith Kaufmann, blending natural sunlight and defiantly anachronistic electric illumination with style throughout, to composer Camille, whose dreamy, drifty contemporary songs add a charming atmosphere.” Felperin gives a “special shoutout” to costume designer Monika Buttinger. “If anything could make beaded face veils a hip new accessory in 2022, it’s Buttinger and her team’s work here that will do it.”
Following three screenings in New York, Corsage will head to festivals in London,Busan, and Chicago before opening in theaters on December 23.
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