Movie Review: An Empress Turns 40, and loses it — “Corsage”

In “Corsage,” the unhappy Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary impulsively grasps at all sorts of privileged distractions in 1877 Vienna and environs, a supposedly all-powerful woman hemmed in by her circumstances and position.

She horseback rides, diets and flips-out quietly over turning 40 and thus becoming “old,” something most of the men in her life, including the Emperor Franz Joseph, her husband, never tire of cattily remarking upon. She sits for a portrait and he remarks on how young it makes her look.

“It will remind me of you when you’re gone,” he sighs, and we wonder why she wasn’t able to get this chap canceled, or at least kicked to the curb for his tactlessness.

At some point, she starts to carry on with her English riding instructor, who dances with her as his house fiddler strums his instrument and sings, in Austrian-accented English, “Take the Ribbon from your hair.” Later, a harpist plucks away and covers “As Tears Go By,” by The Rolling Stones.

And then there’s the member of the court who wants her to perform for him — walking or jogging — as he sets out to test and demonstrate “making pictures that move,” inventing the film camera over a decade before Thomas Edison got the first working model patented.

Writer-director Marie Kreutzer of “The Ground Beneath My Feet” goes all-in on anachronisms in this faintly fantastical and satiric period piece about gender roles, then and now, imagining a mercurial woman, one of the most famous of the Hapsburgs, as perhaps forced into the behavior she adapts by her dismay, heartbreak and fury at “a woman’s place.”

Vicky Krieps of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” and “The Last Vermeer” is luminous and lost as one of Europe’s most famous beauties hits “a certain age.”

“At the age of 40,” she muses in voice-over (in German with English subtitles), life begins “darkening like a cloud.”

She obsesses about her weight and her waist line, and has been the object of gossip for fainting in public, something she might be faking or could simply be the result of her diets and impossibly tight corsets.

She all but grimaces through a court birthday party, impulsively wakens her little girl for a chilly evening ride that makes the child sick and deals with an emperor (Florian Teichtmeister) who seems to like her…when she’s in her place.

Her duties as empress were to produce heirs — which she did — and “represent” the newish dual monarchy. That’s trickier, as the emperor won’t talk about strife in Serbia and elsewhere as the newly-merged Austria -ungary bides its time before leading Europe heedlessly into World War I.

She spends too much time with her riding “friend” (Colin Morgan) and is chastised by her teen son, the crown prince (Aaron Friesz) for that. She backs away from that relationship only to spy her husband stepping out with another woman for her troubles. The woman cannot get a break.

It’s no wonder she solemnly rises from one of the many state dinners she must soldier through, leaving as she flips the bird at all those gathered there.

“Her soul is like a chaotic museum,” one lady in waiting writes in her diary.

Krieps keeps this “chaotic” woman’s state of mind just buttoned-down enough to suggest it is merely her deviance from the social “norm” that made her seem so highly strung and impulsive. She’d lost an earlier daughter young, we are reminded. Her morbid curiosity about mental illness suggests her own state of mind as she repeatedly visits a mental hospital to supposedly console the patients.

It’s a layered performance lacking much in the way of histrionics. The film is set well after much of “Sisi’s” public reputation had been established, supposedly smeared by a conniving mother-in-law who labeled her sickly and “a silly young mother,” and that gives Krieps less to play, but a more focused and narrower set of circumstances explaining Sisi’s victimhood.

The anachronisms Kreutzer includes are neither here nor there, underscoring a sort of proto-feminist connection to women coming out from under men’s thumbs in the ’60s. But it is Krieps’ performance that carries “Corsage,” a woman in all her many moods, shadings, fears and desires, treated as abnormal and gossiped about and controlled by insults from pretty much every male in her life. And more than a little annoyed about it.

Rating: unrated, nudity, sex, smoking

Cast: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Aaron Friesz and Colin Morgan.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Marie Kreutzer. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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