Corsage

02/01/23

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Corsage, for me, is something of a history lesson, albeit one with a lot of fictional elements, so I have to do some frantic reading afterwards, to learn about the source material, and to understand the narrative that is being reimagined here. Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer has clearly grown up in a country familiar with Empress Elisabeth, who – along with her husband, Franz Joseph – ruled Austria and Hungary for the latter half of the19th century. It shows. There is almost no exposition: the audience is clearly expected to know Elisabeth, to be aware of her reputation. I’ve never heard of her until today, and I suspect that many others in this cinema are in the same position. This doesn’t spoil the film at all, but it does make me very aware that I am – even as someone who can speak German – experiencing it very differently from its native viewers.

Vicky Krieps plays the Empress. It’s 1877, the eve of her 40th birthday, and she’s desperately bored and unhappy. Her husband (Florian Teichtmeister) tells her that her job is simply to ‘represent’, while his is to, you know, do the actual work involved in heading up an empire. ‘Representing’ mostly means looking beautiful, and looking beautiful mostly means being thin, so Elisabeth’s days are spent exercising, eating tiny slivers of orange and being laced into impossibly tight corsets. No wonder she’s cranky: snapping at the servants, pretending to faint rather than endure another round of meets-and-greets. She’s contemptuous and entitled too – but why wouldn’t she be? Royalty is raised that way. Despite it all, she’s a tragic character, oppressed by the very regime she symbolises, and isolated from her children. I find myself drawn to her, empathising with her sense of entrapment. Krieps imbues her with a vulnerability that softens her, despite never pulling any punches about her capricious nature.

Kreutzer’s direction is interesting. The film moves at a glacial pace, which I find irritating at times, especially in the middle third. But there are many quirky flourishes to admire: the deliberate anachronisms; the audacious fabrications. There are some delicious little jokes (look out for the Emperor’s whiskers), and some very salient points about the nature of celebrity, and the ways in which women are expected to perform. Elisabeth’s straitjacket might be an invisible designer one, cut from the finest fabric, but – in her way – she’s just as trapped as the women she visits in the asylum. Given the opportunity to use her voice where she won’t be heard (in a silent movie reel), her mouth moves to mirror the screams she hears in the hospital. It’s the same gilded cage that did for Diana. And there’s only one way to escape… Let’s hope Meghan and Harry manage to buck the trend.

Corsage, then, is a fascinating piece of cinema. While I don’t exactly enjoy it, I am impressed by it, and I know I’ll be thinking about it for quite some time to come.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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