The luminous Vicky Krieps, dressed to the nines in period clothing, middle finger defiantly raised—it’s a knockout poster image, but what of the actual film? Corsage is a measured, decidedly feminist feature—hardly blockbuster entertainment but a sturdy festival release, as well as an excellent showcase for Krieps’ formidable talent. Following in the footsteps of the great Romy Schneider, who starred in three Sissi films during the 1950s, Krieps has taken on the role of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, an incredibly popular royal of the late 19th century. Heavily scrutinized for her keen fashion sense and compelling public persona, Krieps’ Sissi is a real firecracker, often to the dismay of her more traditionally-minded husband.
The director Marie Kreutzer has homed in on the Empress’s fortieth year, beginning the film with the much dreaded birthday. Acutely aware of the public’s obsession with her age and appearance, Elisabeth adjusts her personal routine in kind: fussing over her diet, exercising on equipment in her home and barking at her handmaidens to tighten her corset to the point where she is physically uncomfortable. While she realizes the frivolity of such concerns and longs for a more active position as a royal, her ego remains fragile, her unrest simmering beneath a confident display.
Elisabeth’s fraught relationship with her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph, is equally complex. She is very fond of him in spite of their clashing personalities and invests herself in maintaining their marriage behind the scenes. Franz Joseph balks at her independence, insisting that she be nothing more than an attractive figurehead, eventually turning his affections toward a much younger lover. Elisabeth, on the other hand, though very flirtatious with her handsome riding instructor, chooses to keep that relationship chaste so as not to inflame budding gossip. Her sexual needs are not straightforward anyway—the empress gets off on being adored, watched and desired—more so than the sex act itself. Her desires are in tune with her sycophantic public, and her confident facade begins to crumble as soon as she senses that their affections are starting to fade.
Elisabeth is whip-smart, however, and as much as she loves to be on the receiving end of adulation, she craves anonymity above all else. Especially as she pummels headfirst into her forties, when women of the time were expected to fall apart like creased paper dolls. She begins to coach one of her handmaidens to impersonate her in public, planning ahead for a seamless exit. Elisabeth is in fact most at ease when she is not being watched and free to act out however she pleases. Vicky Krieps embodies this restless joie de vivre perfectly, turning in a meaty performance.
Corsage reunites Krieps with Marie Kreutzer, who directed her once before in We Used to Be Cool (2016). It was Krieps’ idea to make a film about Empress Elisabeth, and Kreutzer followed through a few years later with an original script. Her direction injects the period piece with a breath of fresh air, utilizing modern effects like slow motion and anachronistic music–the latter of which might have been more jarring had it not already been done by Bertrand Bonello and Sofia Coppola. In one such scene, a harpist performs a stirring version of Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By,” adding a new spin to a melancholic classic.
If there is any complaint to be made about Corsage, it is that its boldest steps have all been made before, from its poor-little-rich-girl feminism to the formalist style. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a worthy addition to the canon of feminist period pieces, or that its statements are not worth repeating, over and again. The success of Corsage rests equally on Krieps and Kreutzer’s shoulders, both of whom have produced the best version of Sissi yet.