Film Review: Corsage
Many viewers may take issue with the attitude of the main subject of Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s stylized biopic of Austria’s 19th century Empress Elisabeth (played by Vicky Krieps). Set over a year in the empress’ life, the film paints a largely sympathetic portrait of this royal, who spends most of the movie complaining.
The empress has recently turned 40, which, as Elisabeth’s personal physician points out, means she’s already reached the average life expectancy of her female subjects. Such a revelation should make Elisabeth feel grateful for her status, but instead she simply focuses on her fading glamour.
Similar to today’s female celebrities, Elisabeth is constantly subjected to remarks about her appearance: some purposely cruel, some willfully ignorant. This leads to the empress developing an eating disorder, binging on the sort of chocolates few of her subjects could ever afford, only to later starve herself to fit into her restrictive corsets.
Elisabeth is also deeply unhappy in her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph. The emperor and empress are each engaged in extramarital affairs, with both conveniently turning a blind eye to their spouse’s activities. Later, we see Elisabeth visit the sick, treating them with a touch of humanity denied by the rest of society. In the women chained to hospital beds, diagnosed with “melancholy,” Elisabeth sees something of herself.
Kreutzer wants us to sympathize with her heroine, but she doesn’t make it too easy for us to do so. While we feel sorry for Elisabeth’s marital discontent and her constant scrutiny, she’s also cruel and snobbish in her treatment of her staff, moaning at one point about how she hates looking at the “ugly faces” of the girls who tend to her every need.
Is Elisabeth a caged bird or a spoiled brat? Kreutzer lets the viewer ultimately decide how much sympathy this empress really deserves.