Review: Corsage

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Marie Kreutzer

Stars: Vicky Krieps, Katharina Lorenz, Florian Teichtmeister

It’s always the way. I post a Best of the Year compendium, spurred on by the season’s listicles, and no sooner have I done it something comes along to upset the apple cart and suggest a belated reshuffle. Yes, if you go back and clock that list you’ll see it’s been amended, and that is thanks to Vicky Krieps, Marie Kreutzer and everyone else involved in this zesty late arrival; the best reason to get up off of the sofa and visit your local cinema for one last time this year.

Kreutzer drew scant but just praise a couple of years back for her sixth feature The Ground Beneath My Feet; an absorbing character study of a thoroughly modern GirlBoss™ put through the wringer of emotional devastation. For UK viewers you may have noticed it if you happened to have a MUBI account two years ago. It caused few ripples. Fewer than it ought to have. Fortunately, her latest is drawing more attention.

Krieps stars here as Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria, and Corsage charts a year of her life, from Christmas 1877 through to roughly the following autumn. For a point of reference, ask any Austrian for an equivalent figure in English-speaking circles and they’ll likely cite Princess Di. We’re talking about a member of the aristocracy who was uncommonly loved by the people, courted her fair share of controversy, and who butted against the traditional and the patriarchal. This is the version of the woman evidenced in Kreutzer’s slow-burn dramatisation.

Krieps herself takes a producer credit here, giving some indication of her commitment to the part. This is quite keenly a passion project for the actor, who came to providence five years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, and whose eclectic choices since have confirmed her as someone to keep a close study on. Elisabeth may be here most effervescent screen work yet. Kreutzer seems imbued with the same sense of inspiration, as she abuts this fateful and tumultuous year in the life of Empress Elisabeth with the dawn of the modern age as we know it; framing its passing against the advent of cinema itself. In Corsage, the painted image is about to be replaced with the flicker of the moving one, and in kind the aristocracy itself teeters on the brink of a tumble into irrelevancy.

Begrudgingly subordinate to her husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmaster), we quickly come to understand that the couple share an understanding with regards to their marital fidelity, while the emerging tabloid press have become obsessed with fluctuations in Sissi’s weight. Having newly crested 40, Elisabeth finds herself at a restless impasse. The two figureheads crisscross Europe as heads of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, trailed by Elisabeth’s cousin Rudolf (Aaron Friesz), with whom she finds an almost indecent chemistry. Her verve to rebuff and rebuke convention naturally leads to assumptions that her mental health is in jeopardy. And while suicidal ideation is a persistent trouble for Sissi, one comes to see the complexities of her mindset as a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Corsage takes considerable inspiration from Sofia Coppola’s telling of the life and fate of Marie Antoinette. This is a similarly puckish, decidedly modern piece of work. Kreutzer implements handheld camerawork deftly, while also regularly framing the drama as though it were glimpsed by members of the Help (something that lightly accentuates the sense of paranoia Elisabeth finds pressing in at the corners of her day-to-day). There’s plenty of commentary on the hypocrisy of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, and Corsage frames Elisabeth’s struggle as in part born of frustration and disappointment with the privileged life she’s been shackled to. That she finds peace and solitude visiting the sick seems telling of a deeper yearn and connectivity.

Water plays a curious role here. In the asylums she visits, baths are cruel, torturous affairs, but Kreutzer then uses a cut to contrast with Sissi herself, who so often finds comfort and security in submergence – something that connects pivotally with the bold and breathless finale. Submergence isn’t just redolent of security and death. Here it is also sexual. One of the most beautifully lit sequences finds Elisabeth and Rudolf partaking in a nighttime skinny dip (the mist on the lake is exquisite), while the solitude of her bathing time allows the Empress an arena for some much-needed self care…

Camille’s score and songs continue to represent and add a modern flourish, but her work is more consistent and complimentary than Coppola’s post-punk jukebox juxtapositions. Nevertheless, it carries a kindred sense of both the winsome and antagonistic; a sonic counterpart to Elisabeth’s desire to buck trends and defy authority.

And yet Corsage is not rambunctious. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann may keep things fast and loose, but she’s also adept at framing and lighting a scene with the studied natural perfectionism of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Hair, make-up and costuming are also on-point to ensure that the picture gets its share of deserved nominations as we start facing down awards season.

But the centre of it all is Krieps. The anchor. The guiding light. She holds court. Dallying with the motion picture camera for the first time, and making her own flick-books, one senses her Sissi reaching out from history toward us, even as she rushes toward her own end. The many parallels with Princess Diana also ensure that the character resonates strongly as modern or, at least, more modern than the film’s late 19th century setting. And while getting into and unlocking Corsage is ultimately something of a thawing process, once you’re in and anchored with her, Krieps carries this thing through to the end. Speaking of which, I thought White Noise had Best End Credits in the bag for 2022. Once again, I was premature.

8 of 10

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