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“I love to look at you looking at me:” The unflinching gaze of Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage

Updated: May 10, 2023

Rachel Pronger’s commissioned response to Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage


There is a specific moment five minutes in when we realise that Corsage has something different in store to costume drama business as usual. In a striking pre-titles sequence, Empress Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) walks up the palace stairs flanked by her ladies-in-waiting, swaggering in slow motion to a contemporary pop soundtrack. For a brief but arresting instant Krieps lifts her eyes and looks directly at the camera, momentarily puncturing the fourth wall with one delicious, defiant look.

Corsage is all about looking, the gaze that imprisons and the look that liberates. Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s subversive portrait of Empress Elisabeth – known affectionately as “Sisi” – who ruled over Austria-Hungary in the 19th century, plays with the facts to offer a film that is as much a study of the crippling effect of fame as it is a portrait of a real life historical figure.

In her lifetime, Elisabeth was the ultimate proto-celebrity, a woman whose fashion choices sparked nationwide trends and whose life was followed with feverish attention. Even 150 years after her death, the Empress’s face remains familiar in the German-speaking world from kitschy souvenirs, porcelain plates and tacky figurines. Her legend has been burnished by a series of film and television adaptations, most notably the popular 1950s “Sissi” films, a fairy-tale take on the Empress’s life starring a teenage Romy Schneider which is traditional Christmas viewing in much of Europe. She remains a powerful figure in popular memory to this day. I first watched Corsage in a busy cinema in Berlin and was struck by the way in which the Sisi-literate audience laughed knowingly at certain scenes, delighted by the ways in which Kreutzer’s film was playing with the image of the Empress they had grown up with.

In contrast with previous portraits Kreutzer’s take offers us “Elisabeth” rather than “Sisi,” a dark, distinctly feminist portrait of a complex and contradictory woman. Krieps is compellingly spiky in the central role, delivering a performance bristling with unexpressed frustrations which crackle ominously beneath an artfully impassive exterior. Krieps’s Elisabeth is a butterfly under glass, exquisite, furious and stuck. The Empress yearns for freedom from the unflinching scrutiny which hems her in, yet at the same time her relationship to fame is ambivalent. A beauty prized primarily for her ornamental qualities, the 40-year-old Empress is keenly aware that her aging body represents diminishing power. She cannot shake an addiction to being looked at; “I love to look at you looking at me,” she says to her clearly infatuated riding instructor (Colin Morgan), before asking him to tell her she is beautiful. In a later scene, she encounters Louis Le Prince, an early cinema pioneer who promises to commit her image to film. Under the gaze of Le Prince’s camera, an invention which unlike the painted portrait or the still photograph is able to capture the Empress’s restless energy, Sisi experiences a moment of genuine gleeful release.

That imagined meeting with Le Prince is one of many anachronistic details which litter the film like glistening Fabergé eggs. Corsage is part of a lineage – think Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Sally Potter’s Orlando or Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite – which channel contemporary aesthetics to reimagine period drama through feminist lenses. In Corsage, Monika Buttinger’s gorgeous costumes play with textures and unusual fabrics to offer a sumptuous twist on 19th century fashion, while the soundtrack draws on a mixture of chamber music covers of Kris Kristofferson and the Rolling Stones alongside baroque pop from the French musician Camille.

These nods to modernity present a portrait of a woman trapped in the wrong era. Like so many women through history who have found themselves stuck in the wrong time and place, Elisabeth expresses her discontent through small but significant acts of rebellion, smoking cigarettes although her husband forbids it, sitting in silence at elaborate banquets and pretending to faint in order to escape her royal duties. Yet while her behaviour infuriates those around her, ultimately the Empress is helpless, a restless rebel never quite able to push past the bars of her gilded cage.

The clearest modern parallel to Sisi would be Princess Diana, another people’s princess both adored and destroyed by her public. Like Diana visiting HIV/AIDs patients in the 1980s the Empress shows an affinity with the stigmatised sick, visiting amputee soldiers and psychiatric patients. In an asylum she encounters her shadow sisters, poor women who, like Elisabeth, have transgressed social norms but who lack the protection of royal privilege. One woman lying catatonic in a bath is here because she has committed adultery; another, her face twisted in a howl, is accused of grieving “excessively” for a dead child. The woman screaming on the bed, her arms and legs tied to the bed posts, could be the Empress in another life.

This disconnect between what can be expressed and what is felt is one of Kreutzer’s key themes, as is the related idea that appearances can be deceptive. Appropriately for a world in which the external is everything, costumes have a crucial narrative role throughout the film. The elaborate styles of the Habsburg court can used to contain – the “corsage” of the title refers to the Empress’s corset, into which she is laced daily to maintain her punishingly tiny waist – but also to conceal and deceive. The Emperor peels his extravagant sideburns off at night, while the Empress grooms one of her servants, decked out in a full face veil, to attend events in her place. When Elisabeth chooses to cut off her elaborate braids it is a shocking act of insurrection, her shorn head prompting screams from her daughter and tears from her maid. Elisabeth leans into this abjection, laying her thick lengths of hair off the back of a chair where they hang ominously, somehow monstrous, dead and alive at the same time. “I feel weightless all of a sudden,” she says, looking on in wonder.

That image of hair abjectly detached from the body, speaks directly to the fantasies of escape that runs throughout Corsage. Elisabeth yearns to cut herself out of royal life, but the only way to sever the woman from the image is through death. Without giving anything away, ultimately Kreutzer presents us with a kind of miracle, a revisionist ending which swerves clear of Elisabeth’s real fate, instead offering a fantastical, if ambiguous, vision of liberation. By rejecting both history and convention, Kreutzer stays true to the spirit of her subject – mercurial, rebellious, defiant, and somehow, impossibly, pulsing with fresh life.

Rachel Pronger is a writer, curator and editor. She writes about film, visual art and cultural history for publications such as The Guardian, Sight & Sound, BBC Culture, Little White Lies, Elephant Art and MUBI Notebook. As co-founder of feminist film collective Invisible Women, she has presented events for organisations including EYE Filmmuseum Amsterdam, BFI Southbank, Flatpack, Cinema Rediscovered, London Short Film Festival, Balkan Can Kino Athens and Glasgow Film Theatre. She is also currently the documentary programmer for Aesthetica Short Film Festival, anda trustee for Alchemy Film & Arts.


Originally from Bradford, Rachel splits her time between Berlin and the UK.

Twitter: @RachelPronger/Instagram: @RachelPronger

CORSAGE


Marie Kreutzer

IN CINEMAS FROM 26 DECEMBER

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