|Empress Elzabeth (Vicki Krieps) having a fun time with her |
cousin Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey)
Wallflower I am not
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an individual in possession of wilful nature, must be in want of a tattoo.
So goes the tale of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (yes, she is Sisi/Sissi) – who really had a tattoo, that of an anchor, obtained at a cafe in a Greek harbour – a not-very-Empress-like thing to do (it’s hard to imagine how wildly daring this would have been in 1888) but very much the thing to do when a woman is in full possession of her own agency.
In Marie Kreutzer’s film, Corsage, the Sissi in this film is played by the incredibly versatile Luxembourgish (love this word!) actor, Vicky Krieps; who has been going from strength to strength since her captivating portrayal of Alma in PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017). She has been in an incredible 10 films since. Her Sisi is the polar opposite of the romantic and girly romp we’ve all come to know à la Romy Schneider (who allegedly, in later life came to hate all three Sissi films). And who could blame her; for the Empress was an iconoclast – she was stubborn, strong-willed, dramatic and spontaneous. Deemed as eccentric to some (certainly, this was a polite way of describing her mode of behaviour in that era), but for me, Elisabeth’s brilliance was in her defiance and the liberties she took to be herself, come what may.
Before we slap words like ‘entitlement’ and ‘self-privileged’ on her, we’ve got to consider that perhaps they are, in fact, the wrong labels.
I am reminded of the brilliant psychological study in Kreutzer’s last film, The Ground Beneath My Feet showcased at the German Film Festival in 2019 – where a young woman’s universe and everything she knew, literally gave way. Elisabeth’s ground, however, does not yield. She is on solid ground even when she’s at sea (her most beloved place). The fact that Elisabeth was assassinated when she was due to travel on a boat to Geneva in 1898 was significant. She was stabbed on the promenade, but only lost consciousness on the gangway to the boat. No wound was found on her body until they loosened her garments, and only then, did they spot a couple of drops of blood staining her corset; where a thin sharp long 4-inch needle had been inserted – puncturing her ribs, lungs and finally her heart.
Corsage begins in 1877, when Elisabeth’s life was still bearable. Don’t let the film’s narrative fool you into thinking otherwise. At the age of 40, her marriage to Emperor Franz Josef, had long become a farce – they hardly kept each other’s company (she travelled and he had his affairs of the state) and were rivals when they did manage to be in the same room together.
After reading some negative reviews of the film, I don’t think it is entirely necessary to pick out the fictitious elements against the facts. It is not a factual biopic and it does not pretend to be one. The liberties that Kreutzertook in making the film, especially in her music choices, or what appears to be a host of incongruously acontemporaneous objects within the set design, or even the strange narrative turns, are the same kinds of liberties I expected the Empress to have taken – in the true freedom of invention. It is not for me to single them out in order to be appraised critically.
Perhaps the only one I had wanted to be real was the Empress’ meeting with Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), dubbed the inventor of the early motion-picture camera – if only this were true, then there would be the hope of surviving footage where we would be able to see Elisabeth in all her athletic playfulness.
When I said that her life was still bearable in 1877, it was because her beloved son, the Crown Prince of Austria, Rudolf (Aaron Friesz, whom I last saw in Vienna Blood), was still alive; he was the Rudolf of the tragic Mayerling incident (a couple of years ago, I saw the film Mayerling (1968) of the Crown Prince’s suicide pact with his lover, with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve).
The Emperor, played by Florian Teichtmeister, whom I last saw also in Vienna Blood was a small man. The film is not becoming of him. Whilst I did read the coverage of the allegations against this actor, I will refrain from commenting, to do so here would be to detract from the merit of this very fine film.
Corsage, this decorative sounding word is in fact the German word for corset – and one of the Empress’ many ‘routines’ was one of a tight corset, to her, this is not an instrument of torture but of discipline. It is true that she sported a very diminutive 16” waist (sometimes expanding to 19”) with the help of this contraption (and her constant command of ‘tighter’ to her dresser). I believe she rather liked the disciplined side of her nature, and perhaps, the way to keep structure is also her ability to wield power – if only over her own body. Even though her weight was publicly scrutinised, her hair (it’s weight and length, justly described by her lady-in-waiting as her ‘life’s work’) and her beauty were both equally renowned. Despite all these decorative elements, Elisabeth was actually incredibly fit; Krieps played this element well. Elizabeth was a skilled horseman, good fencer and an incredibly good swimmer.
Although she suffered bouts of depression (this began after she lost her first daughter, Sophie during infancy), she also had nerves of steel and a feminist heart that was worn on her sleeve. Later, she was introduced to heroin as a way to curb her feverish and fearful temper. She only dropped her mask when she was with her cousin, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey), a wonderful pairing (Elisabeth and Ludwig, as is Krieps and Rubey especially in the scenes around the loch); and her alleged lover, the Anglo-Scotsman George "Bay" Middleton, here played Colin Morgan (he of the Merlin fame – though he’s grown handsome I must admit); a brilliant horseman whom she met at the stately home, Althorp, in Northamptonshire.
The film’s beauty not only lies in the luxurious costumes by Monika Buttinger; or the set design by the art department; or the large beautiful Austria estates and grounds; it is the sheer inventiveness of Kreutzer, as an example, in one scene the Empress was struck by an Alice in Wonderland moment, where she was too tall to fit inside her room, so that her head is bent at the neck to avoid hitting the ceiling. There is also a reference to the Light Princess, a Scottish fairy tale written in 1864 by George MacDonald, about a princess who was cursed by an ability to defy gravity and an inability to cry – both of which sound like super powers in this day and age.
|Empress Sissi (Vicky Krieps) with her beloved dogs|
Another memorable scene was when the Empress dived into a man-made pond, much to the surprise of her two Dalmatians, who stood, stock still and watched on in disbelief. And this inventiveness also extends to the wonderful use of pop music in the film. My favourite track is Camille’s She Was – a haunting tale of a woman who was a swan when she was at home and a lion in the wild. The bell-like echo of Camille’s voice when she sings the words ‘go, go, go, go away’ is like a message reverberating in the twilight of civilisation, or in the night before a self-imposed exile. It is a stand out. As is the charming rendition of As Tears Go By, sung and performed by a Luxembourgish harpist, Dina Nimax.
There is a moment at the very start of the film, when Elisabeth returns home from a fainting spell (later we learn that it was a practised art, a mode of escape from the humdrum formalities of court). She arrives at her estate, hair loose and a beautiful blue dress trailing behind her. Her dogs, large, rakish looking Irish Wolfhounds (her favourite one was named Shadow), were running beside her up the board-sweeping staircase – this was all done in slow motion and under the spell of Camille’s song, She Was. Elisabeth is introduced to us as a carefree spirit and as she passes the camera, she casts a nonchalant glance at us – an invitation to be complicit in her story.
Kreutzer’s Elisabeth is a role model for the modern day; she was not ‘unmoored’ as some reviewers have said. In fact, she is very much anchored in her own beliefs.