- Colin Fraser
THREE AND A HALF STARS Austria's Empress Elisabeth has turned 40. Is she now over the hill?
PERIOD DRAMA Austria German #CORSAGE
Starring Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichmeister
Marie Kreutzer’s forthright work has a hint of MARIE ANTOINETTE in telling the story of Austria’s 40 year old Empress. But where the former is all bright colours and post-punk, this is steeped in the misery of a mid-life crisis. For Empress Elisabeth, Sisi to her friends, is suffering at the tongues of bored gossips and an uncaring husband who all feel she’s reached her best-before date. Hence squeezing (and I do mean squeezing) into her waist-trimming corsage; she’s not giving anyone the opportunity to call her fat.
Played with some relish by Vickey Krieps, Sisi spends the year fighting boredom, loneliness, repression, fat-shaming, ageism and a son who has now found the courage to tell his mother how to behave. His concern is what his father and perhaps the neighbours will think about her mild (unconsummated) flirtation with 'other' men. And why shouldn’t she - her husband resists any approach, preferring the attention of his mistress(es) than that of his wife. Still, one must keep up appearances.
Thus she sets a course of trying so very hard to fit in (cue the corsage reference again) it’s as if she’s trying to squeeze out the other side of a prescriptive society. Or at least change it from the inside while passing through. A series of challenging if vaguely approved choices test those around her. “She scares me”, says one of her aides.
It should be noted that this is a work of fiction signalled by anachronistic props (a guard rail here, a mop there) to ensure we don’t get lost in the period trappings. It’s underscored by, well, the score which includes a ukulele version of Kris Kristofferson and The Rolling Stones played on a harp. It’s whimsy designed to keep us with the theme, not the plot and certainly not the wrapping. Stay focussed says Kreutzer.
Now you could argue that if you’re going to reinvent Sisi’s story, why not spice it up a bit per THE FAVOURITE or The Great. Inject some life and audacious humour into a narrative that doesn’t otherwise have a lot going on. But that’s not Kreutzer’s objective. This, as they say in the papers, is a thought piece and while not historically accurate it does put a large mirror to the plight of anyone suffering self-doubt, repression, fear of aging, fear of weight gain or anyone lacking a true sense of self. That’s most of us, although women get more than their fair share of unwelcome attention with the most notable of notables being the late Princess Diana - she and Sisi have a lot in common. By design or coincidence is over to Kreutzer.
And just when you think it’s done, the film doesn’t finish at the end. Check out the closing credits in which Sisi, reborn in flowing robes, lives another life and goes on to grow a moustache, Orlando like. Is Kreutzer suggesting the only path to a fully lived future is for us all to get past gender norms and their punishing, often cruel expectations? That’s left for us to decide.