Director: Marie Kreutzer (Austria, Luxemburg, Germany, France). Year of Release: 2022
Vienna, 1877. We see the back of two maids, sat on the side of a bath. They are timing their mistress’s attempt to keep her breath underwater. It’s a pointless exercise, rendered doubly pointless by them recording significantly different times. But they’ve got to do something to keep Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (fortunately also known as Sisi) occupied.
Empress Sisi is now 40, and coming towards the end of her use as a royal ornament. More than one review points out that she has reached the age at which she should fear death, but this is not what the film says. A doctor tells her that 40 is the average age at which her female subjects die, but this is something else entirely. For all the People’s Princess act, there’s a few more indolent years in her yet.
Nearly all reviews – or at least the ones that I’ve read – also compare Corsage to Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. Most of them also mention Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Now that’s not too surprising – all three films are “feminist” laments to the isolated lives of women who married into royalty. The surprising thing is that almost all these comparisons insinuate that being like Spencer or Marie Antoinette is a good thing.
Maybe I should fess up that I’ve never actually seen Marie Antoinette, but I’ve seen enough Sofia Coppola films to assume that it’s about a talentless rich posho who is promoted above her ability (write about what you know, Sofia). And I know from bitter experience just how terrible Spencer is. Yes, there are distinct similarities between Corsage, Spencer and Marie Antoinette, but that’s nothing to get excited about.
Nonetheless, the comparisons are slightly insulting to Corsage. Sisi is not a brainless airhead. We witness her trying to talk politics with her thoughtless husband (the word Sarajevo comes up repeatedly, presumably to instil in us a sense that they’re talking about Somewhere Historically Significant). But she is excluded from any serious grown up conversations. The only thing she can do is thump the dinner table, do some fencing and gymnastics, and be beastly to the servants.
You see, for all her pretensions to be a Feminist Idol, Sisi is only interested in some Sisters. The film is dominated by the clunking metaphors of her not eating and forcing herself into a crippling corsage, but she is contemptuous of the servants who can’t pull hard enough on the corset strings. And when her close confidante finally finds a man who is both good looking and rich (what else do you need in a man?), Sisi makes it clear that she won’t allow anything to happen there.
But my main problem with the film is not the faux radicalism, but that it’s just too good at what it’s trying to do. Corsage is trying to tell us that life for a nineteenth century empress was deathly boring. And to prove its point, it leads us through the small and uneventful steps of Sisi’s life, minute by painstaking minute. Whether dull dinner table conversation, cursory interaction with her husband, or long phases of silent isolation, we share her tedious suffering.
Every so often, titles come up telling us the date and place. But it’s almost always 1877 and we’re almost always in Vienna. Which kind of proves the point that director Marie Kreutzer is trying to make, but at the expense of our entertainment. Corsage shows us just how boring Sisi’s life is by being itself excruciatingly boring. Good that it’s there and all that, but I lost count of the times I checked my watch to see whether it would all be over soon.
For all this, the film is beautifully photographed and very well acted. Vicky Krieps is great as the pampered empress. And the music is superb, well most of it. The ethereal soundtrack by Camille is haunting, but some of the anachronistic diegetic music is, well, a bit odd. At one stage, someone sings Help me Make it Through The Night while strumming a violin. Later, a woman sings As Tears Go By, while accompanying herself on the harp.
I presume that these musical choices are meaningful, that people in the 1870s singing songs written a century later are doing so for a reason. But you, by which I very much mean I, struggle to work out what this reason is. This means that these songs never really raise above the status of a gimmick. Similarly, when Sisi leaves a ballroom raising her middle finger, I think it’s supposed to show that she’s just like us, but it all felt just too forced and self-aware for its own good.
Corsage makes an important point about institutional sexism, but it makes it very badly – to me at least. It is too worried about the super rich, too keen to depict a boring existence by boring us to tears. But what do I know? It seems to have gone down well with the critics, and I wish it well. Just don’t ask me to recommend you go see it. Unless you’re as masochistic as Sisi.