Marie Kreutzer grew up in Vienna, where the 19th-century empress Elisabeth of Austria is a tourist-shop darling. She smiles from tea towels, chocolate boxes and all manner of tat. “Her face is on every other souvenir. She is not someone who is cool or interesting here,” the director shrugs over Zoom from her apartment in the city.
So, when the Phantom Thread actor Vicky Krieps suggested they make a biopic about Elisabeth (or “Sisi”, as she is affectionately known), Kreutzer laughed it off. “I didn’t think she was serious.” The pair had worked together on 2016’s We Used to Be Cool.
But the idea of a Sisi film got under her skin and Kreutzer began researching, wondering what stage of the royal’s life she might dramatise. Sisi’s marriage at the age of 16 to Emperor Franz Joseph has been done to death on screen (the wedding had been arranged between the emperor and her sister, but when he clapped eyes on 15-year-old Sisi, he demanded a swap). Her death from stabbing, in 1898, at the hands of an Italian anarchist, felt too obvious: “Everyone knows that story.”
Instead, Kreutzer’s film, Corsage, opens in 1877. Elisabeth, played by Krieps, is turning 40, and she’s done with playing nice. No more people-pleasing, this is a portrait of the princess as a right royal troublemaker. Just look at the poster, in which Sisi gives the (ivory silk-clad) finger to camera. “She never wanted to be an empress in the first place,” says Kreutzer. And at some point, she stopped faking it, would vanish for months from the Habsburg court to travel alone and incognito. When she was forced to attend state banquets in Vienna, she’d sit statue still, refusing to eat or speak. “When I read that, I thought: That’s like a punk performance,” says Kreutzer. “She had to be there, but nobody could make her touch the food or talk. These small acts of rebellion intrigued me. I thought it was interesting to observe a woman who doesn’t want to meet all the expectations any more.”
It’s a thread that runs through all her films. “It’s not conscious. But I was raised as a feminist. I’ve always had a hard time with authority. That finds its way into all of my work.” Her last film was the underrated The Ground Beneath My Feet, about a finance executive looking after her schizophrenic sister, trying to hold the strands of her life together.
Kreutzer grew up in Vienna, where her father, an architect, worked long hours. So, when the family moved into a wreck of a house, it was her mother, Ingrid Lechner-Sonnek, who renovated it, doing much of the hard graft herself. At the school gates, Ingrid wasn’t like the other mums. “She had short black curly hair, and was always wearing jumpsuits and pants, never high heels,” Kreutzer laughs. “She wasn’t a typical mother of that time. Later, she became a politician and was really successful. I always saw her as very strong, standing up for herself.” Lechner-Sonnek went on to become a chair of the Green party in Austria. The advice she gave her daughters as teenagers was to find the thing they wanted to do in life. “Work hard. Don’t settle down too early. Don’t get pregnant.”
Elisabeth of Austria had no choice about babies. From the day she married, her twin purposes in life were to produce an heir and look pretty. She is often described as the first royal celebrity of modern times. And clearly, the strain of living under constant public scrutiny took a toll on her mental health. To stay thin, she survived on a near-starvation diet and exercised obsessively. “It’s so clear she had an eating disorder,” says Kreutzer. Even after giving birth to four children, she maintained an 18-inch waist. In the film – like some modern day Instagram wellness guru – we watch her living on a diet of orange slices and beef broth.
“She became famous for her small waist, and then she had to keep it,” says Kreutzer. “Because if that’s the one thing you have that people find lovable or attractive about you, that gives you attention or acceptance, then of course you have to keep it.”
I tell her that what struck me watching the film is how women are still brought up to be pleasing. Yes, says Kreutzer. “I have a daughter who’s also not very pleasing at some points, and then I’m always in that conflict. I want her to fit in. I say: ‘Can you please be polite to that person who you don’t like?’ But then on the other hand she says: ‘Why do I have to be friendly if I don’t like her?’ And I’m like: ‘Yeah.’”
Writing the Corsage script, what Kreutzer noticed was how modern and universal Elisabeth’s story felt. In the supermarket she’d pick up gossip magazines. “Meghan Markle was on every cover.” No two headlines were the same, but they were all nasty, unkind and critical. “It was always her doing something wrong. I bought some of the magazines and I saw that things hadn’t changed at all.”
In the second half of the 1800s, the media were constantly body shaming the empress and mocking her for being past her prime. “All that stuff, which happens exactly in the same way today to every female celebrity.”
Elisabeth was under pressure to age gracefully. It’s the same for women now, worse perhaps, Kreutzer says – surrounded by images of perfection on social media and adverts. “You cannot get away from it.” In her 40s she’s noticed the value society puts on staying young and beautiful “It’s interesting. I’m 45. A lot of my female friends are between 40 and 50. You really see how different women deal with ageing. Some get botox, others are like: No. I like my grey hair.”
For her, the success of Corsage – it won the best film award at the London film festival in October – is not without its stress on the appearances front. There are photoshoots, “I never like pictures of myself”, and the hassle of thinking about what to wear. After this interview, she has to go pick up a dress for a premiere. “It’s really unfair,” she says, only half joking. “My husband, who’s 10 years older than me, is also in film. If he has to go to an award ceremony, he puts on a suit, one of the two he owns.” She laughs, throwing up her hands.
Kreutzer’s revisionist empress is flawed and fascinating. It’s thrilling to watch Sisi unshackle herself. She calls her husband an arsehole and, less forgivably, is mean to servants. “That’s how she was raised. To her, a servant was a lower being.”
In early meetings someone asked the question: “Do you think people will like her?” It’s the same every time she makes a film. It drives Kreutzer nuts. No one would ever ask if a male character is likable. “We would follow a mass murderer if he was a cool character, and still be on his side. But it’s very difficult for female characters to be anything other than stereotypes.” She shakes her head, frustrated.
“It has become a mission for me, showing complex female characters, because we all are.”
• Corsage is released in the UK on 26 December.