When people don’t see you, you have to make yourself seen through provocation.
Such is the fate of the protagonist at the centre of this interesting if uneven film. Vicky Krieps puts in yet another powerhouse turn as Empress Elisabeth of Austria who starts chafing against the prescribed existence that her royal duties demand. It’s 1887 and she has just turned forty. And yet, when we hear that tabloids have been obsessing over her weight, we expect that Marie Kreutzer’s film will be an arch repurposing of history with modern preoccupations.
Corsage certainly takes some of its cues from punky iconoclastic films like Marie Antoinette and The Favourite. Anachronisms abound, whether through music choices or technology. Early on, Elisabeth simulates fainting to dodge responsibilities; when particularly vexed, she flips the bird at her dining companions. She seems by turns admirably non-conforming and childishly petulant, inclined to lash out.
Initially, the film has an irreverent sensibility like its protagonist, but pretty soon a more sombre character study announces itself. Reminiscent of Diana’s confinement in Spencer, Elisabeth is starved of connection with others.
Any frisson Elisabeth feels for her horse-riding instructor is brought to a halt when her son, the crown prince, chastises her for acting in an unbefitting manner. She complies only to find her husband, the Emperor, is engaging in an infidelity of his own. The Emperor scoffs at any interest Elisabeth takes in political matters — the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy she’s supposed to represent. Her bleak state of mind is summed up when she says: “Nobody loves anybody. Everybody loves what he wants from others, and we love anybody that loves in us that which we would like to be.”
Having seen glimpses of the more anarchic, badly-behaved film Corsage wants to be, it becomes intrusively serious as if worried it doesn’t have enough dramatic heft. It would have been more effective if it let Elisabeth give full vent to her despair, but instead the tone is just mutedly melancholic. The movie flatlines. Her irreverence isolates her in a way that feels psychologically true but is a downer. This is all well done, but it is well-trodden territory. The listlessness and lassitude of the protagonist infects the movie. Few sparks fly as she’s given up on connection with those around her.
Her rebellion is never fulsome — she never becomes the antihero we hope for. There’s something half-hearted about her oppositional tendencies. In fairness, it makes sense that the Empress’s rebelliousness is tentative; she doesn’t want to be as isolated as she is — we see her softening when she fleetingly connects with her children and her staff. Krieps does a stellar job at conveying this inner conflict, but I often felt curiously unsatisfied by the film’s fence-sitting. Corsage has a wildness in its blood but it is muzzled, which, however apposite, leads to a waning engagement at the halfway point.
That is until, Elisabeth’s Kurt Cobain era begins and she’s introduced to Heroin — another liberty the film takes. When she really commits to no longer giving a shit, Corsage gets its mojo back, but not long after that it ends.
The last image is a gorgeous one — a moment of dreamlike abstraction embodying the emancipation that comes from eschewing one’s persona. A death or a rebirth? It takes place on a modern vessel suggesting that this pioneering woman was ahead of her time.
I’ll admit to finding Corsage more interesting in retrospect. It’s one of those films that gets better the more you chew on it.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Talent: Vicky Krieps
Illustration: Jon McCormack
Release Date: December 30