Corsage – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Marie Kreutzer

‘Irreverent’ is the only significant category of period drama these days particularly on the big screen, a chance to inject some verve and humanity into historical lives or classic fictional characters to show modern audiences that people in the past were just as fallible and complicated as we are. But there are degrees of irreverence and Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, an Official Competition entrant at the BFI London Film Festival 2022, has a more serious purpose exploring power, female agency and mental health in the life of the Empress of Austria.

In 1877 with her adult son Rudolf about to leave home, Elisabeth, known as ‘Sisi’ struggles to perform her obligations alongside a distant husband. Obsessed with her weight and trying to present an image of perfect womanhood takes its toll and Sisi asks for time away. But meaningful encounters with a riding master in England and her cousin in Bavaria only lead to more questions as upon her return, her melancholic moods increase putting even greater distance between the Empress ideal and the real Sisi.

Kreutzer’s film is about transition in which her central character moves from one state to another across the course of the movie. When we meet Sisi she is unhappy but dutiful, synching her waist as tightly as possible and adopting her performative regal status. Soon Kreutzer introduces subtle moments of dissention – a convenient faint, posing for a formal portrait with a cigarette – which bring Sisi’s more spirited nature to light, also channelled through her love of riding and fencing presented as a masculine energy and freedom that Sisi embraces.

Yet Kreutzer also uses transition within the filmmaking process, allowing these early moments of humorous denial of social expectation to weigh her character down and as the almost 2 hours of Corsage unfolds, the tone changes to reflect Sisi’s inner turmoil, an interest in the mental health of others and a starkness within Judith Kaufmann’s cinematography that washes out the troubled Empress as she distances herself from the court.

Historical fidelity is not Kreutzer’s primary concern but the lack of control to determine her own life and, like the corsage or corseted waist of the dresses Sisi must wear, the pressure to confine and restrict personality to fit into external ideals. The deterioration of Sisi’s mental health is sensitively managed and several pointed conversations with her pre-pubescent daughter chastising her about dignity and appropriate behaviours add perspective, asking where the viewer should draw the line between Sisi’s self-indulgence and imperial tendencies with staff who displease her and her interior struggles.

Vicky Krieps is in almost every scene, bringing defiance and determination to her interpretation of Sisi but an equal vulnerability as though possessed by something she cannot fight for long. The camera lingers often on Krieps’ face which examines her pain but also provides an unflinching inquisitor and Krieps rises to its provocation with a nuanced and complex performance.

There is good support from Florian Teichtmeister as Emperor Franz Joseph whose stern certainty about his purpose is tempered by a genuine bewilderment by his wife’s response, uncertain how to help her. Colin Morgan pops up very briefly as the English riding master Bay with whom Sisi has a clear connection and considerable chemistry, but the storyline sadly fails to progress beyond their short encounter early in the film.

Corsage doesn’t get everything right; its chronological approach across several months gives it an episodic feel with few obvious consequences for Sisi or others from each of the all-but-self-contained segments, while the focus on Sisi’s 40th birthday and her relationship with a close companion is underplayed but Kreutzer certainly unpicks the pressures of monarchy and the confining role its women were laced into.

Corsage is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Transition states

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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