Marie Kreutzer’s brilliant portrait of a woman on the brink is a refreshing take on the often tedious period drama concept.
What starts with a bathtub ends with the sea in Corsage, the latest from Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer. Is it breathing techniques Empress Elisabeth of Austria is practising in the film’s opening scene, making her maids count how long she can spend under her bath water, or a dalliance with death? Is she looking for a way to end her life, or to save it?
Kreutzer’s costume-drama is a stunningly invigorating take on the period piece, a vibrant film that rejects the staid conformity of the genre and finds its intimate angles. Ostensibly a film about a royal woman in crisis, not dissimilar to the recent Spencer or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Corsage revels in the personality and conviction of Empress Elisabeth (played with wit and verve by the brilliant Vicky Krieps).
Nearing her 40th birthday, the Austrian monarch is well aware of how the public will look upon her as an older woman. She must both entertain and dismiss this – when she faints at a royal engagement there is an assumption that her expertly tightened corset (demanded by herself) must have cut off her oxygen supply, but a swiftly followed scene depicts her teaching her cousin how she mastered faking the collapse.
Elisabeth toys with avoidance tactics and schemes to get herself out of the daily royal performance she is expected to endure. On a quest for personal freedom, she travels to England and Bavaria where former lovers once taught her to ride horses and embrace her liberty. She poses for portraits dressed in ball gowns with white fur trim and red jewels, smoking lilac Sobranies – a vision in kitsch. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s camera is rarely static, speaking to Elisabeth’s desire to roam, while the rich grain of 35mm adds a satisfying and beautiful texture to the film.
There is an intriguing sense of interior geography inside the palace that represents Elisabeth’s home and prison. In between the lavishly decorated bedrooms and dining halls are blank and bare hallways that look as though they are made from concrete. Servants linger here, waiting for commands, but the director’s choice to frequently return to these spaces gives them as much value as anywhere else. They become a sort of backstage, the link between the theatres of Elisabeth’s life in which she performs day in, day out.
While markedly different from Kreutzer’s previous film, the excellent subdued psychological thriller The Ground Beneath My Feet, Corsage is another example of the director’s knack for astute depictions of women unravelling, searching for a sense of self. There is a darkness to the narrative – nods to child loss and Elisabeth’s mental decline – but there is a playfulness, too, which creates space for levity and release as she plots her most cunning trick yet: how can she completely disappear while still maintaining a public persona?
With her troupe of ladies-in-waiting by her side, the Empress relaxes into a specifically feminine sphere of loyalty and support that guides her forward. Kreutzer crafts an elegant portrait that grants this historical figure a new lease of agency and autonomy.
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Published 20 May 2022
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