Austere drama about Austrian empress wins top prize at London film festival

Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer, hailed as ‘mesmerising’ imagining of a year in life of Elisabeth in 1877

An austere drama imagining a year in the home life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria has won top prize at the London film festival.

Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer, is a fresh take on one woman’s emancipation from the role that is expected of her. It follows Elisabeth, played by Vicky Krieps, as she prepares to turn 40 in 1877.

Though renowned for her beauty, she is suffocating in the stuffy Habsburg court and carrying out desperate acts of rebellion, giving the film echoes of the Spencer and Marie Antoinette historical fiction dramas.

The film, which was a standout at Cannes this year, treads a fine balance between political melancholy and punkish attitudes – scenes include the empress riding at the Northamptonshire estates of Diana, Princess of Wales’s ancestor, the fifth Earl Spencer, where “there is a capricious flirtation with her riding instructor”.

The official competition jury, which was led by the producer Tanya Seghatchian (The Power of the Dog), said: “The best film award recognises inspiring and distinctive filmmaking that capture the very essence of cinema.”

The jury said Corsage was “masterfully realised” and remarked on “its mesmerising and original interpretation of the life of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth”.

It added: “The jury was completely seduced by Vicky Krieps’s sublime performance of a woman out of time trapped in her iconography and her rebellious yearning for liberation.”

Kreutzer said the award belonged to every person who worked on the film. “The beautiful thing about my job is to collaborate with so many great creatives and artists and create something together day by day without knowing how it will turn out,” the Austrian director said.

The Chilean director Manuela Martelli, who won the first film award for 1976
The Chilean director Manuela Martelli won the first film award for 1976. Photograph: Esther Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images

The Sutherland award for first feature film went to the Chilean director Manuela Martelli for 1976, which offers a new perspective on the nightmares of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

The Hitchcockian thriller is centred on Carmen, played by Aline Küppenheim, who visits her beach house to supervise its renovation when she is asked by the family priest to take care of a young man who is sheltering in secret.

The first feature jury said 1976 was a “historic film that is chillingly relevant to our time. Spouses, friends and neighbours become softly radicalised under the threat of violence and an increasing atmosphere of paranoia.

“It is a quietly simmering political thriller with elements of noir – Martelli’s taut and refined style expertly wields menace through meticulous framing and skilful use of lighting.”

This year’s BFI London film festival hosted 164 feature films – including 24 premieres – from around the world. They included Matthew Warchus’s opening film Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio, and Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which closed the festival.

It has been Tricia Tuttle’s last as BFI festivals director. “I took the role knowing that I believe in cultural renewal,” Tuttle said.

“I came in to make an impact quickly, with an aim to open up our festivals to more people and then pass the baton. And I could not be more proud of what we have achieved in these five years, especially given the absolutely wild challenges we have faced.”

There were also screenings in 10 other cities around the UK and a digital programme of up to 20 titles available for online streaming on the BFI Player – marking a huge growth in the festival’s reach following formatting and strategic changes during the years of Covid-induced restrictions.

Other winners this year included the Indian filmmaker Shaunak Sen, who received the Grierson award for best documentary for All That Breathes, a meditation on the relationship between humans and nature.

According to the jury, it “reveals the beauty and kinship and struggle for survival in a time of increasing social and environmental collapse”.

Charlie Shackleton triumphed in the immersive art and XR category for As Mine Exactly and Yue Li won the short film award for I Have No Legs, And I Must Run, about the competition between an injured athlete and a talented new recruit.

Lisa Selby, Rebecca Hirsch Lloyd-Evans and Alex Fry won the audience award for their feature Blue Bag Life, and Ade Femzo won the short film audience award with Drop Out.


Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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