Photo by Heinz-Peter Bader/Getty Images

Revolutionaries in the palace

Austria-Hungary’s last empress is inducted into the cult of Diana and Meghan

Artillery Row

Despite ruling Europe for nearly a thousand years, the Habsburgs are almost completely absent from today’s cinema. Period pieces abound but history’s most important (and bizarre) dynasty, which once duped a minor family member into becoming Emperor of Mexico, thereby sending him to his death at the hands of aggrieved nationalists, is surely an untapped wellspring of material for screenwriters. When Vicky Krieps was cast to star in a biopic of Empress Elisabeth or “Sissi”, consort to the last sovereign of Austria-Hungary, a halfway decent film seemed possible. 

More fool me. Corsage is yet another shameless sexing-up of a historical figure who has been dead too long for anyone to know or care. 

Krieps repeatedly squeezes herself into that symbol of dark age repression

As Jonathan Romney puts it in the Guardian, it is “a feminist dismantling of Sissiolatry” by writer and director Marie Kreutzer — “Sissiolatry” being, of course, the conventional wisdom about Emperor Franz Joseph’s wayward wife, who led a difficult and dramatic life, albeit not just for the reasons presented by Kreutzer. Rather, the film is an assembling of cliché and lazy anachronism. This formulaic study in feminist deconstruction, which sees the Krieps repeatedly squeeze herself into that symbol of dark age repression from which the film derives its title, has already won the Phantom Thread actress nearly every arthouse accolade up for grabs.

In a carefully manoeuvred parallel to Meghan Markle, Sissi is shown to be driven to the brink of madness by the stifling pretensions of her time. “I simply wish I was allowed to talk as well, she laments at a banquet full of babbling male dignitaries. Comparing Elisabeth’s experience to that of Markle in a fawning interview with the Guardian’s Cath Clarke, Kreutzer says, “I saw things hadn’t changed at all.

There’s something too of the late Princess of Wales in this reimagining of pre-war Vienna’s grand dame. Elisabeth, obsessively weighing and measuring herself, forces down morsels of food and crops her hair to a deathly shoulder-length. She twice visits a lunatic asylum for women, who undergo cruel and unusual treatments. “What’s wrong with her?” Sissi asks a doctor about one poor straight-jacketed patient in an ice bath. “Adultery, your Majesty.” 

Itinerant but facile at every point, the film follows Sissi through her unrequited search for love in various settings, with a caption once proclaiming mountainous alpine woods as “Northamptonshire, England”. Here, Sissi visits the “Spencer” family and courts a nameless English riding master (Colin Morgan). Back home, she fools around with her cousin, the wonderfully dotty Ludwig II of Bavaria. To no avail. His only advance is to pour treacle over her face. Later, we watch the Empress try vainly to seduce an imperious Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister). Impotent and wooden in the wrong way, his famous bushy beard is in one scene shown to be a detachable fake. Kreutzer is really going for the jugular. 

These failed assignations punctuate the film’s inflexible pace. Between them, we are forced to sit through Sissi’s slow gallivants around palace gardens to an angsty soft punk score, as Kreutzer attempts to lean heavily into cinematography in creating a mood strong enough to distract from the appalling lack of character development and dialogue. The result is that the film relies totally on Krieps, whose performance is at best caustic. 

The narrative (for there is no plot) ends abruptly in the late 1870s, with Elisabeth diving from the bow of a ship to her … salvation? We never arrive at her assassination at the hands of an Italian anarchist. Nor do we get the high drama of the love-fuelled suicide pact between her son Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress Mary Vetsera, which is said to have broken the Empress. Achilleion, her legendary Neo-Grecian palace in Corfu which was built as a retreat in the years after her son’s death, is never glimpsed. Missed out too is the cold-case murder of her playmate Prince Ludwig. Her wicked mother-in-law, who scandalised her in a cruel pamphlet, does not feature.

Storytelling, a terribly common artform, is clearly of no interest

All the ingredients of a good story, of which there are an abundance, are neglected in favour of a kind of 4D experience in which we share in Sissi’s miserable life, only without the water jets and rocking seats.

This, after all, is the point. Storytelling, a terribly common artform, is clearly of no interest here. As Krieps herself tells the FT, “Playing. That’s the movie — it’s us playing with time, playing with all the concepts we have in our minds of this world: the concept of a woman, the concept of an empress, the concept of a mother, the concept of a movie — how a movie is done. These elements are there to destabilise the audience.” In that last part the film is, indeed, a success. 

Critics will describe Corsage as “avant garde”, “refreshing”, “bold” and “subversive” in copy that can almost write itself. In seeking to kill off the period-piece which, according to the FT’s Wendy Ide suffers from “stuffy, stodgy confines”, Kreutzer has seen fit to dispense with plot, nuance, character, suspense and comedy, too. This has sadly become the order of the day for the modern costume-drama. Much like Olivia Colman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite (2018), in which viewers were treated to scenes of Queen Anne vomiting into various fine China between her lesbian trysts, Corsage is an exercise in immiserating the past whilst throwing in a healthy dose of titillation. It seems no one is safe from this hit-job routine nowadays. Francis Lee’s Ammonite (2020) saw Kate Winslet play little-known geologist, Mary Anning, in a steamily sad romance with Saoirse Ronan, who played her young apprentice Charlotte Murchison. 

Of course, there is hardly a scrap of evidence that any of these women were as prodigiously libidinous as they are depicted in film. The amorousness is not itself the problem. When set within an engaging story, as Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) was, it can make for a brilliant movie. Sciamma had the good sense to base her feature in fiction. Plucking a character from history is a risky game. It feels unfair that the Empress has been subjected to so much artistic licence without her story — as in, the events of her life — being included. Like revolutionaries of old, who stormed palaces and posed within their ornate walls, Corsage is nothing more than a boring usurpation. 

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