— by WILLIAM STERR —
This 2022 film, Austria’s Foreign Language entry to the Academy Awards, is the (highly) fictionalized account of a brief period in the life of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.
Not only is it a fictionalized account covering the years 1877 and 1878, it also has elements of magical realism: electric lighting, telephones, lit exit signs, imperial palaces in disrepair, and musical pieces from Kris Kristopherson and The Rolling Stones.
If you are willing to take this as a film that delves into the essence of character, with the accuracy of details of time and event being immaterial, then it all makes sense. (As Edward D. Wood Jr. says in “Ed Wood” – another film that dispensed with the accuracy of events – “Haven’t you ever heard of suspension of disbelief?”)
In 1837, Elisabeth von Wittelsbach was born to parents of Bavarian royalty. Her parents encouraged a life of freedom and inquiry in all their children. However, in 1853 Elizabeth became unexpectedly betrothed to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Six weeks later they were married and, at the age of 15, she became Empress of Austria. Three children were born in quick succession, (the first dying at less than two) the third being Rudolf, male heir to the throne.
All was not happy for Elizabeth: her mother in law detested her and poisoned her in the eyes of the court. Court procedures and restrictions were stifling for one raised in freedom as she was. It is at this point, years later and after a fourth child is born, that the story of “Corsage” begins.
Elizabeth (Vicky Krieps – “Old”) is turning 40. This, she is reminded, is the life expectancy of a female commoner in the empire. The contempt for her is palpable in the way courtiers and other officials refer to her – she is an ornament of the Hapsburg family, nothing more. Her behavior is looked down upon whenever it strays from the strict decorum specified by tradition. Even her children chide her for her smoking and her behavior. Unable to withstand the restrictions on her, including weight and appearance, she demands the tightest corset (a torturous garment from which the name of the film derives) and virtually starves herself at meals. She is not alone in creating a false impression: her husband, Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister – Die “Toten von Salzburg”), wears fake muttonchops which he removes in the privacy of the palace.
Trips away from court become common, with visits to men such as her relative Ludwig II of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey – “Die Glucksspieler”) with whom she seeks intimacy only to discover the rumors of his homosexuality are true. He recognizes the despair of her situation however, and warns her against drowning herself in his lake!
She explores equestrian pursuits with a handsome horseman, and – another anachronism: motion photography didn’t attain the level illustrated in the film for at least another 10 years – a handsome cinematographer. There are even suggestions of relations with more than one female. None of these are ever presented outright, nor are her relations with her loving but distant husband satisfactory. The overall effect of these episodes is to paint a picture of a woman frustrated at every turn of life.
Elizabeth is deeply self-centered. Perhaps she has to be, given her circumstances, but her relations with other people, even those devoted to her, are twisted to her needs. For example, her lady in waiting has an opportunity to establish a life for herself, but Elizabeth will not allow it because of her need for the attendant. Later the same woman is forced to diet and corset so she can impersonate the Empress at public functions.
This is a well-made film depicting the gradual decline of a free spirit under the rigors of convention and her resistance to it. However, the character of Elizabeth as presented by the actor and director is so peculiar in itself that it is difficult to connect with her emotionally. In fact, none of the characters evoke sympathy or affection, or even interest. Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ objective. Considering the jarring anachronisms and the decrepitude of what should have been sumptuous surroundings, both reflective of Elizabeth’s mental state, one believes an almost clinical observation of disintegration and disassociation was exactly what Kreutzer had in mind.
Writer/Director: Marie Kreutzer
Producers: Alexander Glehr, Johanna Scherz
Cinematographer: Judith Kaufmann
Editor: Ulrike Kofler
Runtime: One hour, 53 minutes
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