Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage has already established itself as one of cinema’s crowning jewels of 2022, having earned the Best Film Award at the 66th Annual BFI London Film Festival, and Vicky Kreips having received the Best Performance Prize at Cannes. The film certainly warrants such acknowledgments; it skillfully crafts a decaying and confined world of sectionalised palaces and flawed bodies, and through these subversions manages to breathe new life into the story of Austria’s famous Empress and the viewer alike.
It dances between what can only be described as nonchalant realism, absurd comedy, and self-aware grandeur. Vicky Krieps, best known for her performance in Phantom Thread (2017), both shapes and parallels this tone through her remarkably stoic and simultaneously personable portrayal of the Empress.
Far from another rigid period piece, the film shines in its ability to place human feeling at the centre of the viewing experience. The film’s soundtrack merges orchestral nineteenth-century hallmarks with modern tracks, including a harp rendition of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘As Tears Go By.’ Yet, its tone bears a subtlety beyond the confronting effect of a Bridgerton pop cover. It instead works to reaffirm the characters’ relatability to a modern audience, reminding the viewer that the characters within this period drama are not merely robots of the past, programmed with unfamiliar etiquettes, but complicated people of our own emotional, conflicting species.
Kreutzer tackles the Empress Elisabeth’s legacy as a figure of glamour and tabloid gossip, zooming in on her later years as Queen of Hungary following her unhappy marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. Yet the film cherry-picks its version of history with precise and radical intention. Rather than attending royal engagements, we follow Kriep’s Empress as she visits old lovers, rides her beloved horse until it nearly kills her, screams profanities in a ‘motion picture’ (a strange new art form at the time), and smokes a cigarette with dying soldiers in hospital. As a result, Corsage plays more like an indulgent diary of the late Empress’ imagined desires rather than the typical biopic, compromising on historical accuracy to allow Elisabeth’s perspective to guide the way. It refreshingly recognises that the female protagonist can only find freedom when she destroys the version of herself that is designed and instead embraces the version who is able to feel. The effect is an equally invigorating and contemplative film, in which viewers can both understand Elisabeth’s entrapment and rejoice in her outbursts.
Much like the emblematic corsage itself, Kreips’ Elisabeth spends the first half of the film constricted by the role she must uphold, whilst in the second half, she finds a form of freedom in acknowledging the absurdity of the world around her. In a particularly impactful scene, Kreutzer scrutinises ‘reaction’ under a gendered lens by having Elisabeth mimic her husband’s violent response, slamming her fist into the table in anger and subsequently being unable to contain her laughter. The shot is level and steady, masterfully acted by Kreips and Florian Teichtmeister in frank yet charismatic performances, and thus the scene beautifully shatters the audience’s expectations of gendered portrayals of emotion in film.
Kreips is skilfully subtle in her portrayal of inner affliction and composed imploding, as well as handling moments of rebellion in a manner that does well not to fall into over-aestheticised inauthenticity. The film as a whole refreshingly manages to steer clear of fetishising female trauma, and truly impresses with how it depicts Elisabeth’s relationship with self-perception. In scenes where Elisabeth is implied to be pleasuring herself, we are explicitly shown that it is not the men who excite her, but their admiration. The character demands them to ‘look’ at her and, in doing so, the film weaponises female sexual pleasure to highlight Elisabeth’s expert ability to curate the perfect image. Elisabeth is thus not presented as an effortless muse, but a highly skilled woman dedicated to and worn by her social duties.
Credit: IFC Films
One must be warned that the film does include a portrayal of the Empress’ eating disorder. Nonetheless, I would argue Kreutzer mostly handles this plotline with the delicate precision of a skilled seamstress, crafting Elisabeth’s relationship with her own image as more societal than individual. Corsage refrains from stereotypical depictions of a melancholic princess struggling with self-imposed insecurities through mirrors and tears but instead presents a woman struggling to conform to the expectations imposed on her. The dining table becomes a site of gossip, of being watched, disrespected, and of maintaining an image without a voice, thus we soon understand that the Queen’s perception of beauty-as-identity is not self-inflicted at all, but proven entirely justified by the other characters’ obsessions with her appearance. It speaks to a much larger social concept of thrusting women onto pedestals whilst simultaneously tearing them down.
Something could be argued for the ambiguity of the film, as at the screening I overheard someone say, “it felt exhilarating- I just don’t know what it meant.” It serves as a reminder that if you’re looking for a straightforwardly nostalgic historical piece or an aesthetic celebration of royalism, Corsage may not be the film for you. Convention is a concept Kreutzer constantly toys with through daring shots, such as in squeezing the Empress into a small-sized replica of a palace room in one scene, making the struggle against tradition as intrinsic to the film as its plot.
Corsage, therefore, shines in its ability to evoke personality from history, impresses through nuanced and controlled performances, and champions a narrative of freedom that evokes our human necessity to feel, and sometimes, our necessity to decay. Most importantly, the film is quietly a lot of fun.
Corsage will be in UK cinemas from December 30th, 2022.
Official Trailer: https://youtu.be/P7LpMtLRe2E
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Film Editor