CORSAGE

★★★

PERIOD BIOPIC BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO A CONSTRAINED GENRE

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Ashley Teresa
5th February 2023

In the 19th century, before the days of the corset, the restraining shapewear sitting under a woman's clothing was known as a corsage. It's an on-the-nose title for a film about a female royal feeling trapped by the circumstances of her station, but Austrian director Marie Kreutzer's new period drama 'Corsage' is a far more subtle and haunting experience than it initially appears to be.

It is 1877, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps, 'Old', 'Phantom Thread'), also nicknamed Sissi, is about to turn 40; however, this milestone is one to mourn rather than celebrate. Not only is Sissi officially past the average life expectancy of women in the Austrian empire (she would in fact go on to live until her assassination at age 60), but she has begun to worry about the fragility of her status as a fashion icon among her people. It's unclear what Elisabeth's primary motivation is, whether it's her anxiety in growing older, the tension in her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister, 'Adam and Evelyn'), or her inherently selfish and immature nature, but her behaviour grows increasingly erratic over the year in her life that the film tracks, scaring her children, her husband, and everyone who cares about her. Her loyalty to Austria is further questioned thanks to her closeness to Hungarian Count Gyula Andrássy (Tamás Lengyel), and her struggle to fit the expectations of her duties is mirrored by the her rapidly shrinking waistline.

'CORSAGE' TRAILER

Historical drama film fanatics best look elsewhere for an accurate telling of Sissi's story; 'Corsage's' primary marketing material is of Krieps, adorned in a red jewelled crown, literally flipping the bird. Before the film has even begun, it's clear that expectations will be subverted, and although you won't find a pair of modern Converse in the background of a shot à la Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette', Kreutzer plays fast and loose with historical fidelity typically seen in biopics. Kreutzer's invention of a new life for Sissi is equal parts feminist liberation, giving her freedoms she never had while she was alive, and a strategy for playing outside the typical, by-the-numbers biopic formula. Inevitable comparisons will be made to 'Spencer', which turned a weekend of Princess Diana's life into a psychological thriller; however, 'Corsage' is nowhere near as daring in its filmmaking beyond its script. It's an audacious strategy which, in playing it so straight visually, is equal parts jarring and admirable.

It helps that the film's star, Vicky Krieps, is such a game and gifted actress. As Elisabeth, she's not interested in being universally loved, nor is she interested in giving an Oscars reel performance, a trap that so many actresses playing historical figures often stumble into. Kreutzer cleverly marks that there are multiple sides to every story; Elisabeth, despite her troubles, certainly has things far easier than the women she visits in the local mental hospital, to whom she hilariously gifts an out-of-touch pouch of candied violets. However loved she is, Elisabeth is also depicted as a narcissist who laughs in the face of infidelity allegations and forbids a maid from marriage because it would interfere with Elisabeth's dominance over her. Additionally, it would be far too easy to paint Franz Joseph as a cheating, unfeeling inflictor of cruelty on his wife; instead, Teichtmeister breathes humour and humanity into Joseph with a timid and understated performance. Has he been hardened, like Elisabeth, by his station, or is their broken marriage capitalised on by Elisabeth as an excuse to act up?

Before the film has even begun, it's clear that expectations will be subverted, and although you won't find a pair of modern Converse in the background of a shot à la Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette', Kreutzer plays fast and loose with historical fidelity typically seen in biopics.

Despite Kreutzer's best efforts, however, the one element she can't quite seem to stick is the film's ending, wherein Elisabeth's story is given its most drastic revision. The ending may help to further Elisabeth's freedom and its thematic bookending with the film's opening scene makes sense, however the circumstances that lead Elisabeth to this moment become far more unclear, whether her demise is her own doing or a microcosm of systemic problems within the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. It's a strange choice to be so ambiguous in a film that has no problem drawing its own creative conclusions, and actually undoes some of the agency 'Corsage' sets out to give Elisabeth in the first place.

While 'Corsage' is messy and at times unbalanced, it's worth the price of admission for a magnetic performance from Krieps and a unique take on one of history's most oppressed figures.

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