There has been a lot of interest in Empress Elizabeth of Austria recently. At least five TV and film productions have been produced of late, including this, Corsage, which follows the year of the popular Empress as she approaches her 40th birthday. Yet for those unfamiliar with the lady, and while this looks magnificent and has a tremendous central performance, you can’t help feel that there is some important information lacking to make this from a good film to a great film.
Empress Elizabeth is approaching her 40th birthday and the pressure to appease her public is on. She feels she will lose her looks and her behaviour is often erratic, including having her maids pull her corsets to their tightest. She also needs approval from various men around her, but is living a loveless marriage with her husband, too interested in his position as royal to two countries. Elizabeth finds that these pressures are pushing her to the edge.
Director Marie Kreutzer has a wonderful eye for the visuals, capturing the time and period brilliantly, with the help of a terrific production design team and costume department. The film has a sheen of exquisite beauty that keeps the eye glued, even if the story does tend to lose its way. Kreutzer uses contemporary songs to underplay the drama, in the same way that Sofia Coppola did with Marie Antoinette. However, these are two very different films as the songs add a gentleness to the proceedings.
Where the film struggles, for me, is the backstory to this woman. We come in with a scene in which the Empress is seen in a bath, under the water and attempting to hold her breath for as long as possible, leading to a questioning of exactly how long she was there. We get a sense that this is a woman on the edge but how she has got to this place is never fully explored. Having no knowledge of her as a historical figure, having never seen or read anything about her, you wonder if the filmmaker had wanted us to know who she was before entering the cinema.
Without prior information, we start to questions her decisions. How did she get to her position in life? What happened in her marriage for it to become so strained? Exactly how popular was she among the people of Austria? As the film progresses, you do start to understand a little about her decisions and even her past life but never enough to fully appreciate who she really was. Having said that, it still makes for a fascinating character study, as she longs for attention from her husband or a cousin (who loves her dearly but isn’t incline to be with a woman).
There are some stunning moments in the film. Elizabeth’s meeting with Louis Le Prince, the creator of the cinema camera and allowing her freedom to express herself via film; the sad sequence involving her favourite horse as they both are involved in an accident, and a final sequence that you could literally take a picture of and frame it for not only its shockingness but its beauty.
The performances are the film’s strength, with solid acting from Florian Teichtmeister as the Emperor, a moody, sometimes sulking figure compared to his much more energetic wife, while Aaron Friesz does a good job as her eldest son. Yet everyone is put into the background compared to Vicky Krieps incredibly heart-felt lead. This fine actress, who amazed us all in The Phantom Menace, proves that she is a star in the making. She breaths so much life into the role of Elizabeth, that you forget this is acting. She is a rounded human being with all the flaws on show and it is mesmerising.
As I said earlier, Corsgae is a good film. It’s a handsome-looking film and it has an amazing performance from Vicky Krieps. It does, however, have flaws and sadly, doesn’t linger too long in the memory after one viewing. I would have liked to have known more about her before seeing this story but I am sure there is plenty of material around if I wanted to learn more.
Director: Maria Kreutzer
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmaeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Finnegan Oldfield, Aaron Friesz
Written by: Maria Kreutzer
Running Time: 113 mins
Release date: 26th December 2022