Corseted Desires

Review | ‘Corsage,’ Austria’s Oscar Bid, Fascinates with Its Fictionalized, Feminist Portrait of a Rebellious Royal

Credit: IFC Films

Consider, if you will, the engaging and elegiac Austrian film Corsage as an exotic and non-comedic variation on the theme embedded in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, albeit focused on a protagonist who happens to be a beautiful, rebellious empress in the 19th century. Writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s film, a sensation at festivals and Austria’s bid for the Foreign Film Oscar, is a poetic and historically revisionist feminist reflection, with Vicky Krieps as the vulnerable yet charismatic epicenter.

If the prospect of a film about legendary beauty Austrian Empress Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissi) smacks of a period piece, think again. Breezes of modernity, or post-modernity, blow through enough scenes to remind us of the slyly contemporary perspective of the filmmakers. Like Sofia Coppola’s daring Marie Antoinette, Corsage manages to keep its historical veneer intact while winkingly overturning historical fidelity and emphasizing the parallel of the repressive conditions for women, in 19th-century high society and to this day. Fiercely tightened corsets (“corsages,” in German) serve as an essential metaphor for restrictive feminine conditions and rituals in male-dominated worlds, even at the societal top.

(To put a local spin on the general topic, we in Santa Barbara know about royal rebels, as the expatriated home base of Harry and Meghan.)

Modern era songs jostle our sense of the story’s 1878 vintage, including the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” — played by a corseted harpist — and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Scenes with our heroine in prototypical motion picture fragments, out of sync with cinema’s invention, become a recurring motif. As she tells the photographer behind the motion-picture camera, “people fear the ephemeral… I have nothing to hold onto, except myself.”

Yet her hold is loosening, with a growing anti-social scorn for her royal duties (she tells the emperor, concerned for the public’s dismay over her eccentricity, “The lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep”). A doctor reminds her of the fragility of life at 40 — the “average life expectancy of a woman” — and peddles a new pharmaceutical novelty, heroin. She is torn between the festering desires of her inner self and the demands of a woman in the ruling class.

Very much at the magnetic — and enigmatic — center of Corsage is the sensational actress Krieps, who turns in another and more personal tour de force performance in a filmography that includes Phantom Thread and Bergman’s Island. It was at her invitation that the auteur Kreutzer grew obsessed with the project, and Kreips’s performance pulls us into the moment, and lingers after the finale.

In fact, she literally lingers, in a slow-mo, hypnotic and freewheeling dance sequence during the end credits. The film can’t get enough of her. Ditto, us.


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