Elisabeth, empress of Austria and queen of Hungary (1837–1898), has been the muse of many a filmmaker. Ernst Marischka’s film Sissi, starring Romy Schneider, captivated German-speaking audiences in 1955, securing the empress’s pop culture fame long after her death. Since then, others have made edgier adaptations. The 2022 film Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer, is the latest addition to this collection. “She’s a myth in many ways,” Kreutzer has said.
It is 1877. Elisabeth (a captivating Vicky Krieps) has just turned forty, to her dismay. Famous for her youthful beauty, Elisabeth feels she must continue to live up to her own image. It is not sustainable. “A person begins to disperse and fade,” she says. She is melancholic and broody, and feels a kinship with female asylum patients. She travels frequently to escape her court, whiling away her time riding horses.
Elisabeth maintained her beautiful image—and her fifty-centimeter waistline—through excessive exercise and dieting. In the film, she eats wafer-thin orange slices and broth. The corsage (German for “corset”) acts as the central, double-edged metaphor. (Krieps wore a real corset while playing the empress.) It is a cage: Elisabeth is under constant scrutiny. Her role is ornamental. “You represent. That’s what I chose you for and that’s what you’re here for,” her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, tells her, not unkindly. Courtiers gossip that she has gained weight.
At the same time, the corset and her strict regimen are Elisabeth’s greatest expression of agency. Through them, she exerts control over the one thing she has power over: her body. After sparring and arguing with the emperor, she (seemingly impulsively) jumps from a window. She survives, suffering only a fracture to her leg. But as the film goes on, it seems that nothing will sway Elisabeth from her death-wish.
Toward the end of the movie, Elisabeth cuts off her famous hair—described by Queen Victoria’s daughter as a “most extraordinary quantity of chestnut hair . . . perfect loads of it.” A literal weight is lifted off her shoulders, as she simultaneously relieves herself of her royal duties. One of her ladies-in-waiting assumes her role by adopting a strict diet and wearing a wig made from her cut hair.
Corsage is less about plot than it is about atmosphere, like the recent Spencer, and takes just as many liberties when it comes to historical accuracy. Both are not so much biopics as excuses to explore feminist themes through sad, beautiful women and their exquisite suffering. “You think it’s a biography, and a historian wrote it, so it must be objective, but it never is,” said Kreutzer. “That freed me. I felt like I could do my own thing entirely, because I will never do it right.”
But sometimes Elisabeth's search for self-fulfillment seems less a noble quest for liberty than a shirking of her adult responsibilities. When Elisabeth’s son Rudolf rebukes her for flirting with her riding partner, she dismisses him: She will not be told what to do by her children. He responds that she is the one who is acting like a child. The film likely wants you to think Elisabeth’s children are part of the societal forces repressing her freedom. But I’m inclined to agree with poor Rudolf.
Kreutzer’s Elisabeth also represents a transitional period. She has one foot in the old world and one in the new. Portraits are painted as well as photographed (though Elisabeth did not allow her photograph to be taken after her early thirties, and her last portrait was painted when she was forty-two). But there are also vacuum cleaners and lightbulbs and telephones, servants wearing glasses with modern frames, and contemporary songs. Historical novelist Allison Pataki has observed, along with others, that Elisabeth was “very ahead of her time in wanting more for herself as a woman, an individual, a wife and a leader,” and could have been at home in our world. But twenty-first-century women are no less world-weary. I doubt our modern era would have satiated Elisabeth’s wanderlust. While our ribs are no longer bruised by corsets, women after the sexual revolution are faced with new burdens and unjust societal expectations.
In the world of Marischka’s Sissi trilogy, everything happens for a reason. “If you’re ever worried or upset in life, go through the woods like this with open eyes. And in every tree, in every shrub, in every flower, and in every creature, the almighty God will reveal himself to you and give you solace and strength,” Elisabeth tells Franz Joseph—advice she received from her own father. As the young empress struggles between her desire for the freedom of her youth and the duty she has to her people, it is clear what she must ultimately choose. It is also never in doubt that these sacrifices are for the greater good.
Part of the Heimatfilm genre, the trilogy features panoramic shots of the Alps, set to a soaring orchestral score; local dishes (knödel) and traditional dress (dirndl and lederhosen); and a blessedly simple Christian morality—all of which would have appealed to a traumatized population homesick for the home they never left, or were forced to leave. Behind the edelweiss, chalets, and reminders to trust in the Almighty was an unspeakable sense of loss, a desperation to make sense of the senseless violence of the past few decades.
The fact that the world can be ugly is not in question; how we respond to the ugliness through the art we produce is worth pondering. The broader message of the Marischka trilogy seems to be this: Providence has not abandoned this corner of the world. In Corsage, meanwhile, Elisabeth mocks the idea of providence: “Your father believes God puts everyone in the place he considers right for them,” she tells Rudolf sardonically. He replies, “Don’t let Papa get to you.”
Corsage is a beautifully shot film; the score, and the motif of Camille’s song “She Was” threaded throughout, is captivating; Krieps’s performance is excellent. But if I had to choose between this or the Marischka films, I will always go with the latter—I believe their hopeful message, though perhaps cliche and in reaction to a recent horror, is more real and truthful than the moody existentialism of Corsage.
Veronica Clarke is associate editor at First Things.
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