Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98) was the original ‘people’s princess’. She hated the pomp and ceremony of the Habsburg Court and would absent herself from Vienna for months on end. She was known for her charitable works and her affection for the common people. A famous beauty, she kept her weight down to a terrifying 50 kg, which is 14 kg less than what medical science views as healthy for a woman of her height (173 cms). The Empress rode at every opportunity, and even had a gym installed in one of the palaces. Her hair was so long and heavy it reached the ground, gave her headaches, and took a whole day to wash. Her waist was a mere 40 cms, held in place by the tightest of corsets. Corsage, apparently, is the German word for a corset – a metaphor for Elisabeth’s life.
Elisabeth has been portrayed many times on film, most famously by the young Romy Schneider, in Sissi (1955) and two sequels. Schneider would grow to loathe the Sissi films, which show us a romantic, idealised version of a famously eccentric personality. There are plenty of other versions of the Empress, but they all seem to be more fiction than fact. Was Elisabeth really that elusive?
If Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage is any indication, the answer is “Yes”. This odd, slightly surreal account of one woman’s life from the age of forty, treats the events of history as a room full of furniture to be rearranged at will. If the chairs end up dangling from the chandelier does that worry the director? Not at all! Gar nicht!
While there is much that is true in this unreliable bio pic, the truth has a habit of sliding seamlessly into fantasy. For instance, it’s true that Elisabeth stayed for long periods in Northamptonshire and was suspected of having an affair with a riding master, but there is no indication she was ever visited by Louis Le Prince, the inventor of the motion picture camera. In an interview Kreutzer said she can’t even remember how this imaginary meeting got into the film.
The director’s method seems to involve ‘making stuff up’ whenever life itself needed a bit of assistance. It’s not simply a matter of speculating about conversations that took place behind palace doors, Kreutzer is willing to change anything at all, even the ending of Elisabeth’s story. The soundtrack is mostly pop music, with regular contributions from French chanteuse, Camille, but I’m pretty sure the Habsburgs never sampled Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make it Through the Night, warbled by someone strumming a violin like a ukelele, or the Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By, accompanied by harp.
To make matters even more confusing, details that appear to be most unlikely turn out to be true. For instance, Elisabeth got a tattoo on her shoulder at the age of 51. She also used heroin on her doctor’s recommendation.
I could go listing anomalies, but by now you’ve got the general idea. If you can overlook the liberties taken with history, Corsage is a consistently entertaining collection of episodes that portray Elisabeth’s life as a gilded prison, and her non-conformities as idiosyncratic acts of rebellion. It’s hardly a new story, but nobody could accuse Kreutzer of not taking an original approach. Sofia Coppola made Marie Antoinette into a valley girl in a big wig, while Pablo Larraín recently gave us a fantasy version of Princess Diana, but there’s a quirkiness in Corsage that makes it a far more watchable proposition.
The statuesque Vicky Krieps in the lead role doesn’t much resemble the real Empress, but her performance is a model of consistency. She plays a woman who spends much of her life bottling up feelings and impulses that are unacceptable in the stiff, aristocratic world of old Vienna. When she can bear it no longer, she flees, leaving her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), to keep up appearances as best he can.
Elisabeth can only drop the mask when she’s with a fellow non-conformist, notably her cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey). Luchino Visconti made a four-hour epic about “Mad King Ludwig” in 1973, in which Elisabeth was played by an older Romy Schneider.
Elisabeth’s problem is that no matter how frequently she travels, she can escape neither her destiny nor her celebrity. She has fulfilled her duty of producing an heir, and now wishes to forget about the stifling life of the Court. Yet even when she journeys to England or Greece, she remains a prisoner of her own image, lashed into dresses that maintain the waistline she deems so essential to her sense of self.
Perhaps this is the point of the meeting with Louis Le Prince – to emphasise that Elisabeth is as much a prisoner of her image, as her duties as Empress. If the rituals and protocols of the Court are suffocating, so too is her fame. Indeed, the whole story might be interpreted as an attempt to free herself of these impostures, to find out who she really is, and what she wants. There’s a parable in this for all women, although not many have the same issues with wealth, power, and fame. Like every other movie, Corsage alerts us that these things are not what they’re cracked up to be. If only Meghan Markle could have seen this diverting film before tying the knot with Harry, we might have been spared the world’s most most boring tale of rich and privileged victimhood.
Written & directed by Marie Kreutzer
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Manuel Rubey, Jeanne Werner, Aaron Friesz, Colin Morgan, Tamás Lengyel, Finnegan Oldfield, Alma Hasun, Katharina Lorenz
Austria/Luxembourg/Germany/France, M, 114 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 February, 2023