Corsage is an emotionally complex, vivid period piece about the life and repression of Empress Elisabeth during her tenure as Queen of Austria. The film chronicles how her anxieties, insecurities, and depression led to greater health problems that have been recorded due to her challenges in adapting to the hierarchical etiquette and routines. The film transcends being just another dull period piece production thanks to a rick visual style, and Vicky Krieps delivers an outstanding lead performance, which is full of raw emotions and nuance.
Though it lacks the brisk energy of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (which also uses modern music in the soundtrack), writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s historical recreation based on her own original screenplay is still an absorbing and emotionally involving film. Corsage is part feminist intrigue, part character study, and most importantly, it is a passionate, deeply empathetic exploration of an aging soul who feels displaced and irrelevant in the hierarchy.
As in Coppola’s Marie Antoniette and Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, Kreutzer takes a more irreverent approach to historical context and is more interested in achieving a larger degree of humanism by illuminating a monarch by observing the small details of Elisabeth’s personal life, her longings, and deepest vulnerabilities. While Marie Antoinette was more about youth being coerced into a makeover by royals and the rebellion that comes after, Corsage combats the same structures this time with the same rebellious spirit, but this time it’s more about middle aged angst and not feeling as relevant and more insecure.
Courtesy of IFC Films
These themes of insecurity are instantly established once we see Elisabeth (Krieps) struggling to fit into her dress, in which she struggles to breathe as she attempts to put the corsage in the back of the dress. Which comes as a surprise since she has constantly weighed herself and watched what she ate, but with age, she can no longer maintain the thin waist. Even though the measurement only reads 16 inches, it’s all about perception and just how self-conscious humans often feel. It’s certainly a portrait of Elsabeth’s middle-age years. She is about to have her 40th birthday, and she finds it even more difficult with each passing day to maintain her beauty. For so long, she was embraced in the public eye for her thin waist, her long braided hair, and now she feels her beauty has decayed away. She prefers to avoid being in the public eye, and even pretends to be sick so she doesn’t have to attend public appearances. To make her feel even more insecure, she is completely disconnected from her distressed husband, Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichmester), who is constantly unhappy with how Elisabeth treats her duties and tasks within the consort. You can certainly sense that their marriage is devoid of passion.
The film becomes a study of Elisabeth’s loneliness in her middle-aged years. The film’s narrative unravels through an episodic structure of backdrops that capture Elsabeth’s isolation. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann exquisitely shoots the mansion with a meticulous eye. We see the long corridors along with lavish rooms that feel decrepit, and the whole mansion makes Elisabeth feel like a ghost. One of the most visually arresting shots is just Elisabeth in deep thought with a cigarette in hand. Though she finds some relief when she encounters a painter, who is able to draw portraits of her to make her look like she’s in her 20s again. Rather than resorting to basic narrative plotting, Kreutzer is able to sustain a lot of the pathos and compelling themes just by following Elisabeth throughout different vignettes. We see her visiting relatives, and friends, partaking in lessons on how to fence, swim, and ride horses, where she finds a short-lived romantic spark with instructor George “Bay” Middleton (Colin Morgan) while she is in the United Kingdom.
The film builds enough of a character arc that arranges itself as a compelling chronicle of a fragile woman whose only duty is to appear with beauty and pizazz, and she finds her beauty decaying. The performance by Krieps is quite raw and equally delicate, her performance holds a lot of conflicting emotions, emphasizing the irreverent attitudes of a woman who eventually discovers she is incapable of grasping repression and isolation, which is reassured in the visually sublime final moments that are certainly an abstraction of her withdrawal from the outside world and the ongoing pressures it puts on the female psyche.
Corsage opens in limited theaters Friday, December 23rd. It will open at the Maple Theater on Friday, January 6th, 2023.