BFI LFF 2022: Corsage

A compelling woman-led re-imagining of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer and starring Vicky Krieps.

Free the Austrian One

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Corsage translates from French as ‘corset’. In Corsage the corset is a metaphor for the strait-laced, restrictive court that Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary (Sissi) lives in. For her it was a stultifyingly lonely, melancholy existence, like a straitjacket of the spirit. She was famous for her beauty, floor-length chestnut hair and also for her tiny waist, all of which are portrayed in the film, achieved by brutal corset tight-lacing of her constricted body, all of which are portrayed in the film.

Corsage follows Elisabeth (superbly played by Vicky Krieps) in 1877-8, as she turns 40. This was a turning point in a life that felt pointless: she was considered old and feared losing her beauty. She was in an unhappy arranged marriage with cold Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), estranged from her older children (sensitive Crown Prince Rudolf, Aaron Friesz), and her conventional youngest daughter is embarrassed by her.

She keeps her excessively slim figure through compulsive exercise and an eating disorder, probably anorexia. She was very physical: she was so conflicted that she has sudden whims to travel and escape. Interested in new technology (Louis Le Prince’s moving pictures (Finnegan Oldfield)), she also visits hospitals for wounded soldiers and caged mentally ill women, where a lady-in-waiting doles out unsuitable violet favours.

Corsage is reminiscent of Pablo Larrain’s Spencer in its episodic, impressionistic portrayal of a dangerously unhappy woman trapped in a stifling environment – another bird in a gilded cage – where enjoyment is not part of royal duties. Elisabeth is a woman out of her time: Corsage has an anachronistically modern musical soundtrack as does Sophia Coppola’s pop version of Marie Antoinette. Her discontent and yearnings presage the end of an era, as in László Nemes’ Sunset.

The palaces Elisabeth inhabits are dark, chilly and echoey, staffed by servants whose names she does not know. When she escapes, as she too often does, it is to find a taste of freedom on horseback, or with her crazed cousin King Ludwig of Bavaria or the openness of Earl Spencer’s estate as far away as England – but even there she cannot ride without being suspected of an affair (Colin Morgan). To treat her unhappiness, her Austrian doctor prescribes a new wonder drug, “harmless” heroin.

Corsage is about a self-destructive woman and her loss of identity: she is ahead of her time but imprisoned by it. It’s a film to free her made by a female director (Marie Kreutzer), cinematographer (Judith Kaufmann) and editor (Ulrike Kofler). Stay to the surprising end of the credits.

Corsage premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Vicky Krieps won the Un Certain Regard Best Performance prize, won the Best Film Award at the BFI London Film Festival, where it screened on 6 and 7 October 2022 and is released on 26 December 2022 in the UK.Corsage has been selected as the Austrian entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

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