In Marie Kreutzer’s film Corsage (2022), Vicky Krieps absolutely blows out the screen as Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Kicking off around Elisabeth’s 40th birthday, Kreutzer’s script follows a fictional year in her life. It begins with her locked in a tense and loveless marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister). She is rarely, if ever, valued for more than her beauty and figurehead role. As a result, she is always tightening her corset and eating as little as possible to survive. Her birthday sets off a feeling of restlessness. Elisabeth senses that an era has passed. What comes next will be defined by her decisions to carry on or push against the constraints around her. This takes her all over Europe in search of company that embraces who she wants to be. The result is a measured yet wickedly funny personal odyssey.
While fused to its own sensibilities, Corsage fits with recent period pieces centered on the discontents of female royals. From The Favourite (2018) to Spencer (2021), this crop of films digs into the dreadful, and sometimes deadly, circumstances faced by women ensconced in the bounds of unforgivingly public royal positions. Kreutzer seems to take nods from the precursors while committing to a singular timbre. Corsage is neither as uproarious as The Favourite nor as haunting as Spencer, but rather keenly splits the difference. At times, Kreutzer’s script undercuts that tonal pirouette, such as in a dragged-out first act that smacks of narrative throat-clearing. An early scene where Elisabeth demonstrates the best fake fainting technique to her cousin Ludwig (Manuel Rubey) stands out. Once the film hits a stride that dissipates apart from a few slower stretches and settles into a radiant blend of pathos and pitch-black humor.
Aesthetically, Kreutzer has her footing from the jump. Her work with cinematographer Judith Kaufmann channels a classical costume drama while mining ways to disrupt the formula. The palettes are rich and often reminiscent of the watercolor masters without the mannered humdrum of similar projects. Kreutzer also has a bent toward playing with her camera’s focus to inject Corsage with expressionistic flourishes. A stand-out comes at a dinner when Franz and a guest discuss the future military education of his and Elisabeth’s son Rudolf (Aaron Friesz). Elisabeth and Rudolf are silent, and yet they are the only figures at the dinner table in focus. As the camera pans from Elisabeth across Franz and guest to Rudolf, the older men are no more than fuzzy masses of bloviation. Choices such as that amplify the Elisabethian viewpoint of the whole project. Corsage is unabashedly and winningly her experience.
What carries Corsage through the slower patches is an unsurprisingly tremendous turn from Krieps. So much of her performance is about relaying the internal tumult Elisabeth faces in a way that never overplays the moment. Krieps is a master of dispatching a slow blink or quiet smile to relay a seismic shift in her characters. Playing Elisabeth affords her the opportunity for nearly two hours of that work, interspersed with devil-may-care explosions of personality that land all the firmer for her subtlety elsewhere. A middle finger flashed to a dinner party. A tongue stuck out at a condescending doctor. Wonderful punchlines of a sort that signal Elisabeth’s further ventures away from her constrictive past. By the time we reach the film’s sensational closing scenes, Krieps has maneuvered Elisabeth through a furtive detonation of growth. It is endlessly refreshing in an era of arch bio-pic performances.
Eschewing reality in favor of a more thematically-guided exploration of a historical figure or moment can be a great success when handled well, and Corsage pulls off far more than it fumbles. Corsage is a strong addition to the ongoing redefinition of historical bio-pics and bio-pic-adjacent films and another reminder that Vicky Krieps simply does not miss.
Corsage is now playing in theaters courtesy of IFC Films.
'Corsage' is a strong addition to the ongoing redefinition of historical bio-pics, and a reminder that Vicky Krieps does not miss.
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.