“Corsage,” coming to the M.V. Film Center on Jan. 6, welcomes the New Year. Don’t be put off by the title, which doesn’t refer to the cluster of flowers worn on a woman’s wrist, but is the German word for “bodice.” As such, it’s an appropriate choice for this biopic about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, best known for her beauty and the clothes she wears.
Heading the cast is Vicky Krieps, spot-on as Empress Elisabeth. With contemporary music as a reminder that underlying this film is a modern view of an 18th-century story, Marie Kreutzer directs as well as writes the film. Other notable actors are Florian Teichtmeister, playing Emperor Franz Joseph; Arron Friesz as the Crown Prince of Austria, and Elisabeth’s son; Katherina Lorenz as Marie Festetics; and Colin Morgan as Bay Middleton.
The viewer first sees Empress Elisabeth, who had married Franz Joseph at age 16, submerged in a tub, much to the distress of her maids. In a sequence that is repeated throughout the film, she is laced up in a corset. She demands that it be tighter. She also weighs herself repeatedly, a reminder of her obsession with appearances. At one point, she faints and then shows how it can be faked. She smokes repeatedly, another example of her attempts at expressing herself. The images throughout are exquisite, particularly the décor of the rooms the Empress confines herself to.
Then the viewer sees the Empress cantering sidesaddle in the countryside, and it’s another way of conveying her attempts at freedom. At a grand dinner, she blows out the candles for her 40th birthday. It is not a happy moment for her, and she leaves a dinner party with an obscene gesture on her way out. She visits an infirmary, where she finds a man with syphilis and a woman thrashing herself frantically. She takes another horseback ride at night. A dinner follows without her somewhat alienated husband, whom she goes to look for. In many of the episodes, she travels to another region.
She meets a photographer who shoots black-and-white images of her with his movie camera. It’s yet another example of her inquisitiveness, despite her distress at turning 40. She begins to wear veils to hide her aging. In her next riding excursion, she falls and is rendered unconscious. As a result, her horse is shot, much to her distress.
She takes fencing lessons, an example of her further efforts to explore meaning in her life. In another episode, she jumps out a window, acquiring a hairline fracture but surviving. In one powerful scene, she is shown with a former lover pouring chocolate over her face. It’s remarkable how many attempts she makes to find meaning for herself. For instance, she tries heroin, at the recommendation of a doctor. She cuts her hair, one aspect of her beauty. So it goes, with one episode after another illustrating her struggle to express herself.
The Empress Elisabeth is a reminder in some ways of the English royal court and its reliance on surfaces, in particular in its treatment of Diana Spencer. What is clear is the struggle of the Empress Elisabeth to find a place for herself in a world that oppresses her. The beauty of the film’s many scenes contradicts her attempts to find a place for herself in a world that ignores her.