If you’ve watched a certain TV documentary series recently, you may have encountered the notion that belonging to royalty is a little like movie stardom – and that both are conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The grandmother of all beleaguered royals-as-celebs – before Diana, Princess of Wales, before Princess Grace, before you know who off Netflix – was Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98). Fondly known as Sissi, or Sisi, she was the subject of a reverential cult of glamour in her day, and in the 1950s was played on screen by Romy Schneider in an adulatory Sissi trilogy that made the young empress an ideologically charged homegrown Disney princess.
Now comes Corsage, a feminist dismantling of Sissiolatry by the Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer, shortlisted as her country’s contender in this year’s Academy Awards. Kreutzer is best known for her unsettling 2019 psychodrama The Ground Beneath My Feet, and Corsage is similarly about a woman feeling that the ground might crumble beneath hers – clinging tenuously to her sanity while the Austro-Hungarian empire suffocates her with its starched protocol.
Set in the 1870s, Corsage depicts Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) at 40, struggling to maintain her flawless image and that of the empire she is expected to incarnate. Elisabeth’s aura of lofty grace depends on her rigorous control of her body, which involves the corsetry of the title being laced mercilessly tight, as well as workouts with exercise rings in her private gym, making her a muscular precursor to Madonna or Jane Fonda.
Enduring a politely loveless marriage to the emperor, Franz Joseph, Sissi yearns for affection, or libidinous release, but it evades her. One candidate is an English riding master (Colin Morgan), whom she visits in Northamptonshire; significantly, although Corsage doesn’t specify this, Elisabeth’s actual historical visit was to none other than the Spencers at Althorp. Elisabeth is most relaxed when spending time with her famously troubled relation Ludwig of Bavaria, but he discreetly rejects her less cousinly attentions, prompting her to ask, in the film’s drollest line: “So the rumours about the stable boys are true?”
Meanwhile, she defies decorum by cannily staging faints when she pleases, larking about in front of an early movie camera or, while visiting troops in hospital, stretching out on an amputee soldier’s bed and enjoying a smoke with him (a gold-tipped pink Sobranie, naturally).
Just as many people are raising their eyebrows at today’s disenchanted rebel royals, some may feel that Elisabeth’s pampered imprisonment is only relative cause for complaint. She’s certainly better off than the women she sees in a mental ward, strapped into cage-like enclosures, or indeed her own servants and aristocratic attendants: she forbids a lady-in-waiting to marry because, it’s clear, she effectively owns her. It’s a mark of the film’s intelligence that Elisabeth, however magnetic, is also shown as narcissistic, petulant, even cruel. Similarly, Franz Joseph is played not unsympathetically by Florian Teichtmeister as a soft-spoken, careworn nebbish; in a nicely humanising joke, the emperor peels off his famous billowing side whiskers, to be stored in a dainty little box.
Kreutzer’s winking anachronisms aren’t altogether novel: Corsage doesn’t go as far as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (Converse trainers at Versailles), but it’s not dissimilar. Kreutzer shows her own playful disdain for period realism, with a plastic bucket and mop distinctly visible amid the splendour of Vienna’s Hofburg palace. Similarly, the soundtrack includes baroque reworkings of two 20th-century pop standards, along with a sombre, airy score by French avant chanteuse Camille.
Imposingly shot by Judith Kaufmann, Corsage plays manicured formality against flourishes of febrile visual invention: Elisabeth plunging into a garden pond of deep green, or standing like a giant in a room that seems to have shrunk around her. At moments, however, the pacing treads a fine line between stately and somnolent.
What consistently mesmerises, however, is the lead performance by Krieps, so coolly fascinating in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Subsequent roles, such as in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, have tended to foreground her register of coltish neurosis, and there’s something of that here. But Krieps also imparts reckless caprice, barely contained desperation, and poised disdain for a moribund milieu. Her face at times suggests a Botticelli softness, at others it freezes into an impenetrable shell of geometric planes – while her sometimes sotto voce delivery blithely evades easy communication. You sense that as an actor, Krieps’s own imperial phase is just beginning.