Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary is often regarded as more of a beautiful enigma than an actual human being. In crowded Viennese souvenirs shops, she is a still portrait plastered on postcards, magnets and tea cups, a quiet relic of Imperial Austria. In 1950s cinema, she is a magnetic young royal whose life would be transfigured into a fairytale-like trilogy that brought comfort and escapism to a postwar Europe. In 1968’s Mayerling, she is femme-fatale-tinged mother whose devastating loss (the apparent murder-suicide of her only son Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera) would rake in millions at the box office. Be it through Viennese court gossip or a myriad of posthumous period dramas, the intimate details of Empress Elisabeth’s life—her physical appearance, her all-consuming eating disorder, her tragic experiences as a mother, her unhappiness with royal life—have routinely provided the world with bewilderment and amusement. Rarely, though, have they inspired the sort of empathetic character study present in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage.
Set between December 1877 and October 1878, the film refreshingly opts to paint a more pointed portrait of the royal, one that tackles a short but pivotal 11-month period of her life at the turn of her 40th birthday. Notably, Corsage’s protagonist is not a 17-year-old Romy Schneider, nor an immaculately made-up Ava Gardner, but a melancholy Vicky Krieps on the brink of losing herself in an internal abyss of depression and purposelessness.
Because so much of her public persona has been tied to her physical appearance, Elisabeth, now a woman who has reached the life expectancy of her female subjects, struggles to find meaning in her royal duties (which limit her to nothing more than mere arm candy for Franz Joseph, played by Florian Teichtmeister). At first, the “aging” queen attempts to cling to the glory of her youth, adhering to a strict diet of paper-thin orange slices and clear beef broth. But as the film progresses, she enacts a series of quiet rebellions in search of fulfillment elsewhere—finding small joys in midnight swims, a change of hairstyle and a good cigarette.
What makes Corsage a standout from other Sisi depictions is that writer/director Kreutzer isn’t interested in the boring dichotomy of hero or villain: Though the film doesn’t refrain from depicting Sisi’s occasional cruelness towards her ladies-in-waiting or her inability to connect with her young daughter Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj), it isn’t out to frame her as a spoiled royal brat. Conversely, its interest in her struggle as a woman in a patriarchal system isn’t meant to turn her into some perfect feminist icon. What the film is intent on is humanizing the very complicated Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie of Bavaria (and occasionally relieving her from her suffocating corset).
Here, many of Elisabeth’s complexities are painted through her candid struggle with her mental health. Throughout the film, her depressive state is felt far beyond narrative and performance elements and informs much of the film’s auditory landscape and set design. Though historical biopics tend to utilize musical score to accent drama and wring an emotional response from viewers, Corsage frequently opts for a harsh silence when depicting Sisi in the royal/domestic sphere. In early sequences at Hofburg Palace, for example, a strikingly empty auditory landscape helps communicate her sense of dread. With no music to fill life at the palace, every door creak, every footstep, every mundane movement is heard. There’s a hollowness created through the sound design that allows us to feel the coldness in Sisi’s world.
This is also conveyed through the palace itself. Chipped flooring and walls create a sense of decay, not just for the House of Habsburg, but for its troubled matron. Her home is deep blue wallpaper, empty workout rooms and quiet hallways. Her world is jarring loneliness, a longing for more. And while Corsage certainly lingers on Sisi’s despair, it does so without romanticizing her pain or appearing voyeuristic—quite the opposite, actually. When so many women—Sisi included—have been expected to suffer in silence, stopping to acknowledge their sadness is not only rebellious, but loving.
These acts of warmth towards the empress persist in moments of on-screen rebellion. While the film prefers to depict Sisi’s struggles without the accompaniment of musical score, it does employ a modern soundtrack to highlight her (small) acts of defiance against the royal system. Much like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Corsage juxtaposes the seriousness of the royal period piece with contemporary song. When Elisabeth successfully fakes a fainting spell to get out of a belittling royal commitment early in the film, French artist Camille’s 2011 track She Was plays as she and her posse make their sneaky escape: “When she was home / She was a swan / When she was out she was a tiger / And a tiger in the wild is not tied to anyone.” Not only does this choice of music help convey Kreutzer’s views on her protagonist, it assists in modernizing the empress’ plight and invites viewers to consider her with 21st century sensibilities.
These contemporary perspectives are what encourage Corsage to take creative liberties with stories of Sisi’s later life. Although Her Royal Highness was assassinated by anarchists in Switzerland at age 60, Corsage writes a vastly different final chapter for its protagonist—one that generously grants the queen a bit of agency over her life (even if it is posthumously). Brought to life through Kreutzer’s skillful direction and Krieps’ earnest performance, this surprising royal reimagining offers a fresh perspective on an elusive historical figure. Empress Elisabeth of Austria may sit motionless in the gift shops of present-day Vienna, but in Corsage, she is warm flesh and blood—messily and delightfully human.
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Writer: Marie Kreutzer
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Colin Morgan, Alma Hasun, Aaron Friesz
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.