Corsage review: Vicky Krieps is a haunted royal with a 19.5-inch waist in this tastefully anachronistic romp

As she already proved in ‘Phantom Thread’, Krieps is uniquely gifted in portraying women with an active disdain for polite society

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 22 December 2022 16:01 GMT
221222 Corsage

Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a starlet of 19th-century Europe, refused to have her photograph taken after she reached her mid-thirties. It’s a detail that hasn’t been copied over to Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s tastefully anachronistic film about the Hapsburg royal. But that absence of photos as Elisabeth aged remains central to Kreutzer’s vision. Elizabeth believed beauty was her only currency, and she would do anything to preserve it. That includes, most infamously, a tightly corseted waist that measured a mere 19.5 inches.

We’ve seen many onscreen Elisabeths before. Romy Schneider, in the Fifties, starred in a television trilogy that reimagined her life as a bouncy, sweet-souled fairytale. It soon became a Christmas staple in Germany and Austria. Netflix only recently debuted its more feminist-minded take, The Empress, starring Devrim Lingnau. Many depictions offer ample time to the controversy that rocked Elisabeth’s later years when her son, Crown Prince Rudolf (here portrayed by Aaron Friesz), died in a suicide pact with his 17-year-old mistress Mary Vetsera.

Kreutzer’s film takes a different tack. It finds Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) at odds with her own mortality. “At the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud,” she muses, as her birthday celebrations unfold around her with all the solemnity of a funeral. Her husband, Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), has shown a declining interest in her. So she seeks out other men – among them Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), a pioneer in the development of the motion picture camera, and horseman George “Bay” Middleton (Colin Morgan). The former is entirely fictional, the latter supposedly not so.

These are mere flirtations, never consummated. Elisabeth wants them only to call her beautiful – to feel as if all her self-punishment and her daily meals of thin broth have some point to them. Modern audiences would likely recognise this as anorexia nervosa, triggered not only by a profound discomfort with her body, but a desperate need for control.

The public’s obsession with Elisabeth’s appearance has led some to compare her to Princess Diana, and there’s a natural inclination to twin Corsage with last year’s Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart. But there’s far more severity to Kreutzer’s portrait. The same is true of Krieps’s performance. As already proven in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the actor is uniquely gifted in portraying women with an active disdain for polite society. Her Elisabeth becomes something of a Cassandra figure, gently warning her husband of the situation in Sarajevo – which, in 1914, saw the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the powderkeg death that triggered the First World War. She’s told that his job is to control the empire. Hers is only to represent it.

Kreutzer has left the majority of her locations untouched. Paint peels from the walls. Modern telephones and mops line the corridors. We hear covers of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and The Rolling Stones’s “As Tears Go By”. These anachronisms remind us that when we walk through these spaces – old palaces that are still tourist draws in Vienna – we’re walking through shrouds of phantom pain. Elisabeth still lingers there.

History might not have allowed Elisabeth the kind of power she wanted, her death in 1898 also bringing her life to a violent close. But Corsage reimagines it all, granting her unexpected agency and, in eventual death, one moment of pure, well-earned freedom. There’s something magnificently empowering about that.

Dir: Marie Kreutzer. Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Alma Hasun, Colin Morgan. 15, 114 minutes.

‘Corsage’ is in cinemas from Boxing Day

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in