Royalty and the pedestal-prison of womanhood is the theme of this new film from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, imagining the home life of the Hapsburg Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1877, the year of her 40th birthday. Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana, the kaiserin lives in a luxurious delirium of loneliness: notionally cherished, actually patronised.
The movie even shows the empress riding at the Northamptonshire estates of Diana’s ancestor, the fifth Earl Spencer – and enjoying there a capricious romantic flirtation with her riding instructor. It’s broadly historically accurate, though this doesn’t apply to the use of Help Me Make It Through the Night on the soundtrack or indeed Elisabeth’s encounter with later inventions such as cinema and heroin. But Kreutzer sees her political melancholy as part of the tension that led to the first world war.
Elisabeth is brilliantly played by Vicky Krieps as mysterious and sensual, imperious and severe: a woman of passions and discontents who faces icy distaste from the court and the family of her unfaithful husband Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) – this is because of her sympathies for the Hungarian part of the Habsburg empire and her intimacy with the worldly Hungarian Count Andrássy (Tamás Lengyel). Snickering Viennese attendants and officials impugn her Austrian loyalties as they body-shame Elisabeth – every day she faces the literal and figurative struggle to fit into her corsage and get down to a terrifying 18 inches around the waist.
Elisabeth wears violet gowns, violet parasols, smokes violet cigarettes and distributes violet-scented chocolates to the unfortunates in hospitals and asylums. She only really smiles at the sight of her dogs and is utterly devastated when the horse that threw her has to be shot. When travelling incognito in Vienna (to spy on her husband’s mistress) she wears a dark veil – and requires an attendant to pose as her in this veil for a formal event while she is indoors shooting up. Later, she suffers the indignity of being congratulated on her atypical poise on this occasion.
Elisabeth’s whole life is veiled, and Kreutzer sees her style of dress and existence almost as a variation of court mourning. The movie has her living in a series of huge, chilly salons and gloomy dining rooms from which she takes refuge in bathrooms, subjecting herself to various self-harming weight-loss regimes. She is a lonely figure, galloping unattended across various European estates. She remembers the alcoholism of her Bavarian father, who would put away seven tankards of beer of an evening and she confesses that she thought all grownups slurred their speech after dark.
In many ways this is a study in anger, and it is an austere and angular picture. Krieps gives an exhilaratingly fierce, uningratiating performance. Kreutzer’s last film, The Ground Beneath My Feet, from 2019, had just the same shrewd sense of how women are isolated and restricted by whatever status they have been able to cultivate. For Elisabeth, the personal is political.
• Corsage screened at the Cannes film festival and is released in UK cinema on 26 December.