CORSAGE. Don’t mess with Sisi [Review]

Corsage is a story primarily about suffering, depression and rebellion born of frustration and helplessness.

Katarzyna Kebernik

9 March 2023

This is a film for those who have listened to others for too long and dream of finally saying “enough” to go their own way, like Sisi, regardless of the opinion of those around them.

Empress Elisabeth called Sisi is one of the most strongly rooted female historical figures in pop culture and cinema. Reputation as the most beautiful woman of her era, restless and neurotic nature, admiration of the common people and dislike of the high families of Austria, unhappy marriage and numerous family problems, and finally, tragic death at the hands of an anti-monarchist assassin… the life of Elisabeth of Bavaria has inspired many stories and films (from interpretation by Roma Schneider), often moving away from the historical truth.

Most of Sisi’s films have focused on upholding her romantic legend as a lonely, vulnerable soul in an unfeeling Austrian court. Recently, however, Elisabeth of Bavaria has also returned as an icon of non-conformism and rebellion; a liberated woman ahead of her own time. Such an interpretation of this character is offered by the new Netflix series, The Empress – as well as Corsage, a very successful Austrian production with a clear original flair, unluckily entering Polish cinemas in an atmosphere of scandal (one of the actors was arrested for possessing child pornography; the director and producers had no no idea about his proclivities when he was cast, the truth about him came to light earlier this year).

Marie Kreutzer focuses on a specific moment in Elisabeth’s life. The heroine is already after her greatest tragedies, including the death of her daughter. She turns forty and becomes obsessed with preserving her beauty. As we know from history, Sisi suffered from anorexia and most likely orthorexia. This specific form of depression that she suffered from, characterized by manic agitation instead of exhaustion, is still referred to in psychiatry today as “Sisi’s syndrome.” In a corset, she shows the nightmare that was going on inside the empress at the end of her life. He also indulges in a fantasy that is inconsistent with historical truth about what would happen if Elisabeth decided to withdraw from the mendacious court world that was destroying her day after day. The nervous rhythm of the theme song She Was Camille accompanies the rebellion growing in the heart of the empress.

The film is full of deliberate ahistoricisms and subtle, slightly absurd humor that will surely appeal to fans of the series The Great (although Corsage is definitely more serious than it). Don’t expect a godly biography. It is above all a story about a strong, fascinating, imperfect woman. Vicky Krieps in the title role is indecently charismatic, it is impossible to take your eyes off her. The Austrian, who in Phantom Thread was not overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis himself, has probably the best performance in her entire career here.

vicky krieps w gorsecie film o sisi

Interpreted only through a feminist prism, Corsage would make an unbearably anachronistic work, because the conclusions the film reaches in this field are not particularly revealing. But Marie Kreutzer is aware that the situation of an individual is constituted by more factors than gender, and she is able to see in her heroine not only a victim: she also sees an executioner in her. A woman making hell out of the lives of her servants, ruthlessly using imperial privileges, playing with men’s feelings to boost the ego, risking her daughter’s health for a moment of pleasure, with one short and cruel sentence, she ruins her companion’s dreams of marriage. During a visit to the psychiatric hospital, the empress pays attention only to those patients whose situation directly relates to her own – she pays special attention to the man who once told her that she was beautiful, and today no longer recognizes her, which due to his own obsessions Elisabeth takes it as another proof of her aging.

Inspired by Tony McNamara’s aesthetics (with a smaller dose of madness, but still), the film, like The Favorite, sees costume cinema as an excellent convention to explore the violence of social relations. The absurdity of hierarchy, the nonsense of arrangements, the superficiality of roles. It is about a woman who suffocates, locked in a corset of conventions.

Vicky Krieps on the poster shows the middle finger not only to misogynists and the unbearable boredom of the court, but also to all those who are more interested in maintaining the romantic legend of the beautiful and noble suffering Sisi than the truth about her. And everything we know about this woman leads us to suspect that she was a difficult, complicated person, tormented by numerous internal conflicts and psychoses. If she had been born into a different family and had a different husband, her suffering bound with belts would be shown to the empress visiting the hospital, not the other way around.

Corsage is a story primarily about suffering, depression and rebellion born of frustration and helplessness. This is a film for those who have listened to others for too long and dream of finally saying “enough” to go their own way, like Sisi, regardless of the opinion of those around them. What is paradoxical in the case of a painting dealing with such a difficult subject matter, its ahistorical ending leaves the viewer with a sense of strength and hope. It moves and fills with conviction about one’s own agency.

Katarzyna Kebernik

Katarzyna Kebernik

She lives for reading, watching, listening and telling stories.

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