Review of Corsage – Marrakech Festival 2022

Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Principessa Sissi in Italy (where she is venerated), still regularly features on chocolate boxes in cities like Turin and Trieste. Thanks to the huge popularity of films about her starring Romy Schneider, not to mention a series of Franco-Italian cartoons depicting the royal intrigue and the love story between the courageous princess and her beloved Franz, Sissi remains enthroned as the people’s princess for many Europeans. But they’ll be in for a surprise when they see Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s fabulous Elizabethan drama with an outstanding and positively majestic performance from Vicky Krieps.

Kreutzer chose to focus on Elisabeth as a middle-aged Empress. The title bodice refers to the corset our heroine wears, struggling to maintain her 18-inch girlish and seemingly improbable height as her 40th birthday looms. Elisabeth is grumpy and contemptuous, royally haughty and prone to temper tantrums. But if you were forced to be imprisoned in a torturous corset every day of your life, you’d probably have a few wheezing fits yourself.

The bodice isn’t the only thing holding Elisabeth back. His whole life is made up of constraints and denial. Elisabeth was brought into the family to add a touch of glamor to the Habsburg dynasty, but as her looks begin to fade, the family’s need for her also begins to wane. Elisabeth is ashamed of her appearance and her aging – her portraitist notices the lack of youthful radiance on her skin, the servants struggle to redo her corset, her doctor mentions that she has reached the age of expectation of life of an Austrian. The Empress is in constant battle with her body as she smokes and exercises, pinched and in pain, coping with the onset of old age while simultaneously fearing an unwanted pregnancy.

Parallels can be drawn with Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, which showed Princess Diana brought in to cheer up a pasty family – a family that despises her despite acknowledging their need for her – and struggles with their self-image and Golden cage. However, where Larrain’s Diana saw no way out, Kreutzer’s Elisabeth is made of a more severe fabric. She’s a maverick princess who does things her own way. In one scene, she arrives at a state dinner, veiled and mysterious – like death – and continues to smoke her way through the dishes, offering sharp remarks to her husband and his guests. Her husband, Franz Joseph (the excellent Florian Teichtmeister) is a womanizer who has a young mistress in Vienna and with whom Elisabeth has only brief moments of intimacy.

Elisabeth has her lovers, too – there’s a bizarre affair with a handsome Hungarian count (Tamás Lengyel) and serious flirtations with her dashing riding instructor – but this film is about a woman who is truly alone. She leads a nomadic life that takes her from palaces to mansions across the continent to England. But no matter how far she travels, the restraints remain firmly in place.

The film is about constraints and restrictions, but it is also about subterfuge and spectacle. Elisabeth is often veiled and one reason for this is that it makes it easier for her lady-in-waiting to attend public functions in place of her boss. Kreutzer shows how François-Joseph must also put on a show. When he reaches his private chambers, he takes off his fake mustache like a tired repertory actor after a grueling performance. When Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting asks to be released from her job to marry, the Empress refuses, selfishly wanting to keep her doppelganger in her employ.

While the film can be compared to Spencer, there are some similarities to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite, in that Kreutzer is happy to add 21st century touches to its historical drama. She does this using music, location and some of Elisabeth’s decidedly modern hobbies. Far from being vexatious, these additions help to shake the woman from her chocolate box image and paint a fresh and more honest portrait of this beloved and unsung popular princess.

Learn more about the Marrakech Film Festival 2022 here.

Gerald R. Schneider