MOVIE OF THE WEEK July 5, 2024: SISI & I

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Brilliant actresses Sandra Huller and Susanne Wolff give powerful performances in director Frauke Finsterwalder’s fascinating historical drama Sisi & I. As it chronicles the complex, complicated relationship between Austria’s legendary Empress Elisabeth (Wolff) and her faithful companion, Countess Irma Sztáray (Huller), in the final few years of Sisi’s life at the end of the 19th century, it explores themes of duty, friendship, and devotion — with fabulous period costumes.

When Irma is deemed worthy of entering Sisi’s service, she’s sent to join the Empress in Greece, where she must quickly adapt to Sisi’s strict rules and expectations around diet and exercise, as well as the Empress’ moods and whims. Sisi (who had a reputation as one of the most beautiful women in the world in her time) is terrified of aging, gaining weight, or anything else that could put her appearance and fitness at risk. Meals are spartan, physical activity is demanding, and everyone is put on a regimen of supplements and tinctures. Irma at first finds Sisi’s lifestyle oppressive, but as she gets to know the Empress, she becomes Sisi’s loyal devotee in all things, her only goal to keep Sisi happy and healthy.

Irma also finds freedom in her life with Sisi. She trades elaborate, restrictive dresses for flowing, comfortable (and gorgeous) garments; fussy hairstyles for simple braids. No one expects her to marry (which suits her fine, as she’s disgusted by most men), and she finds confidence and a voice as Sisi’s champion. That said, the Empress’ mercurial nature means that Irma may end up (temporarily) out of favor as quickly as she might be pulled into Sisi’s latest scheme or adventure. But in the end, the script (which Finsterwalder co-wrote with Christian Kracht) suggests that Irma — more than anyone else — seems to understand Sisi, to empathize with her antipathy to the trappings of court and her rocky marriage to Franz Joseph, to know that Sisi is struggling every day to keep her fears at bay the only way she knows how.

Finsterwalder’s beautifully filmed Sisi & I isn’t the first movie about the storied Empress Elisabeth — cinematic takes on her life date back as far as 1921, and Marie Kreutz helmed the excellent Corsage just a couple of years ago — but it’s the first to tell Irma’s story. Huller is wonderful in the role, Irma’s early hesitancy and reserve giving way to assurance and even joy. And Wolff is very much her equal as Sisi, who, like a shark, seems to need to always keep moving lest she stop and be consumed by the darker aspects of her emotions. A scene of the two women giggling in the desert at night is one of the movie’s most delightful moments, implying as it does that Irma and Sisi ultimately found what each needed in the other: Someone to laugh and be free with. Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Sandra Hüller adds to her gallery of precise, vivid performances with her turn as Countess Irma, in this latest drama to spin mythology from the reign of 19th century Empress Elisabeth of Austria. A spinster in her 40s with an aversion to men, Irma is the perfect candidate to act as lady-in-waiting to the eccentric royal nicknamed Sisi (Susanne Wolff). Living apart from her husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Markus Schleinzer) on the Greek island of Corfu, Sisi has built a commune of women around herself, of whom the latest is Irma. Adapting to Sisi’s bulimic diet and exacting exercising routine is a challenge, but one that Irma eagerly accepts in a film that limns the women’s increasingly codependent relationship in the waning years of Sisi’s life. Marred by an overly insistent soundtrack of contemporary music that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the drama nevertheless soars on the strengths of its performances, screenplay, costuming, and evocative locations.

Nikki Fowler: Visually one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time. With its strong direction and superb color and cinematography, Sisi & I will draw you in and captivate your senses. Susanne Wolff and Sandra Huller in this historical drama, are both phenomenal, quirky, humorous, witty and passionate. The film is layered with a rockstar modern soundtrack and mixed with a strong female empowerment story. You just don’t want to miss this; add it immediately to your watch list.

Leslie Combemale Watching the always delightful Sandra Hüller as lady-in-waiting Irma and Susanne Wolff as Sisi chew through their scenes with such bluster or nuance or whatever mix is called for, is the chief reason to add Sisi and I to your watch list. It’s mostly Europeans who continue to fan the flames of the pop culture cult of Sisi, but her life is a great opportunities to consider the difficulties experienced by women of power throughout history. Director and co-writer Frauke Finsterwalder leverages production, sound design and costume in particular to connect these women of power with those still finding challenges today. But mostly, really, can there ever be too much Sandra Hüller?

Jennifer Merin Sisi & I is writer/director Frauke Finsterwalder’s lavish period biodrama centered on the relationship between the rather erratic Empress Elizabeth of Austria, aka Sisi, and her devoted lady-in-waiting, Irma, a rural aristocrat high in standards but low in means and prospects.
We met the legendary Sisi in AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for December 16, 2022, Marie Kreutz’s magnificent Corsage, with Vicki Krieps brilliantly holding court as the Empress. Here, Elizabeth is played by a stunning Susanne Wolff in concert with the one and only Sandra Huller as her companion, Irma. All of these A-List actresses deliver superb performances, making the complexities of their characters entirely their own. And, it is wonderful to have two fascinating interpretations of the legendary Sisi to enjoy and compare. Apart from giving audiences the wonder and joyful satisfaction of seeing strong female characters carry an historic drama, the film captures the aristocratic ambience of pre-World War I Europe in all of its opulent glory. The production values are absolutely gorgeous.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Sisi & I is a riveting fictional character study of Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria’s (Susanne Wolff) co-dependent relationship with her last lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztáray (played by the fabulous Sandra Hüller). Wolff and Hüller give masterful performances that are imbued with humor, curiosity, and hunger (of the literal and figurative varieties). Sisi has been the frequent subject of several worthwhile television shows and films, including Corsage and Netflix’s The Empress, but this dramedy is worth seeing for depicting the Empress’ isolated final years spent mostly in the company of women. Hüller continues to prove that she’s one of the best actors in the world.

Loren King Did we need another cheeky, anti-biopic about Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, best known in popular culture as “Sisi,” after Marie Kreutzer’s wonderfully subversive Corsage featuring an indelible performance from Vicky Krieps as Sisi? Well, yes, if it’s Frauke Finsterwalder’s saucy, smart and entertaining Sisi and I. The “I” of the title is played by the magnificent Sandra Hüller who brings an endearing mix of earthy innocence and comic subversiveness to Countess Irma Sztáray. At this urging of her bullying mother, Irma arrives in Greece with the hope of becoming Sisi’s new handmaiden. The eccentric Sisi (Susanne Wolff) puts her new, eager-to-please companion through the wringer of exercise regimes and a health food diet including daily weigh-ins, all while presiding over a kind of inner circle/female fan club that spurs attractions, jealousies and rivalries. Comparisons with “Corsage” are inevitable since both films deftly use anachronistic music and look at imperial court life through an irreverent, modern feminist lens. But there are other visual and thematic influences too, as brilliant and disparate as The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Liz Whittemore Sisi and I is bold and over-the-top. Sandra Hüller and Susanne Wolff lean into the absurd whims of Empress Elisabeth. The film examines the hypnotic aura of Sisi, following her mood swings from childish tantrums to deep unresolved trauma. Hüller and Wolff share a chemistry that is nothing short of mesmerizing. The use of modern music from artists like Le Tigre and Rise Melberg matches the energy of Elisabeth’s unpredictable eccentricities. From the sumptuous production design to the stunning locations, Sisi and I is a gorgeous compliment to Corsage, offering a fresh perspective.

Cate Marquis Sisi and I is director Frauke Finsterwalder’s mostly German language comedy-drama tells a fictionalize tale of the later life of Austrian Empress Elizabeth (Susanne Wolff), known as Sisi, through the eyes of her last ladies’ companion, Countess Irma (Sandra Huller). Like 2022’s Corsage, Sisi and I is a beautifully-shot period piece that focuses on the later life of Sisi, rather than the oft-retold story of the popular beautiful young empress often compared to Princess Diana. Instead, we begin with Sandra Huller’s Countess Irma, a forty-year-old, never-married, misfit aristocrat, who is being forced by her mother to apply as the replacement companion of the Empress Elizabeth. Sisi turns out to be a global-trotting, exercise-and-dieting enthusiast and master horsewoman who finds court life too restrictive for her free spirit, and Irma finds a kind of soul mate in her, accompanying the mercurial empress on her adventures. A contemporary pop music score of songs sung in English links the free-spirited Sisi and loyal Irma to the present as Sisi resists all efforts to rein her in to fit conventional Victorian-era ideas of proper aristocratic womanhood, in this entertaining, intriguing dramedy.


Title: Sisi and IDirector: Frauke Finsterwalder

Release Date: July 12, 2024 (limited theatrical)

Running Time: 132 minutes

Language: German with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Frauke Finsterwalder and Christian Kracht

Distribution Company: Film Movement

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).