Dark and deliciously rebellious, this eccentric period piece is inflammatory in parts and tender in others.
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister
Running time: 112 minutes
It is an established truth in cinema that women rarely sob, scream and hit. Women’s rage is demure, silent and tearful. Women’s rage is curled tightly, neatly into plaits, or stuffed into ever-tightening corsets. In Corsage, Vicky Krieps deals in rage - in the soft kind, mainly, but ever so occasionally in the ugly.
Intermittently, Krieps screams into empty palace chambers. She jumps, without hesitation, out of third-floor palace windows. The camera pans achingly over a string of corset-induced bruises; her ribs ripple and burst out of a narrowing chest. Portraying Empress Elisabeth of Austria in her darkest, loneliest moments, Krieps offers a powerful, emotionally charged performance, showcasing womanhood in all its bloody, violent glory.
Imagine this. The year is 1877. The Empress is sitting rather unimpressed, at a banquet, gathered in her honour. In a moment, she will stand, suddenly, to excuse herself. The party will leave their seats in a hurry, desperate to maintain tradition and offer a final bow. Without turning, she will raise a middle finger to the crowd and strut, noiselessly, to her chamber.
On the year of her fortieth birthday, Empress Elisabeth has grown tired of her life as ruler – or, rather, she feels that others have grown tired of her. “At forty”, she whispers through a lace veil, “a person begins to disperse and fade”. Surrounded on all sides by the threats and demands of her male counterparts, Empress Elisabeth clings to her one remaining source of comfort: her beauty.
First things first: this film is gorgeous. From long, elegant wide shots of the Austrian moors, to emotive close-ups, director Marie Kreutzer and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann transport us to an almost other-worldly realm. Eccentric, fictionalised sets and costume designs accompany a very gritty, very real depiction of womanhood. Gorgeous snapshots of parties and banquets are displaced by long, cold scenes of the Empress, suffocating herself into corsets or drowning herself in copper bathtubs.
We become increasingly aware of the politicisation of her identity – of her age, her waist, her womb
Surviving on orange slices and weighing herself sometimes thrice daily, our isolated monarch is mostly alone, mostly starving and mostly sleepless. Periodically, we wince as a gaggle of women yank at the strings around her waist. In long, tiring scenes, we watch on in discomfort as her stomach grows concave from starvation. We become increasingly aware of the politicisation of her identity – of her age, her waist, her womb. At a particularly tense moment, her husband, the King, reveals the truth behind her position as Empress: men may control and change the monarchy; women may only represent it.
There is a certain kind of power in desirability. There is power in being untouchable and there is power in being touchable. In times of desperation, her true motivations rise to the surface: the Empress longs to be longed for. Succumbing to the lonely delirium of life as queen, we watch Elisabeth increasingly give in to whim and fancy. With women, she demands envy. With men, she demands lust. And where else should an Empress find her power? In a world where beauty is the most powerful currency, who can be blamed for selling it?
As the strings of the corset (and the strings of expectation) grow tighter and tighter around Elisabeth’s waist, tensions grow higher and higher. Depicting the true, harrowing tale at the centre of this story (with a much-welcomed flare of eccentricity) Krieps displays the ever-growing pressures of queendom with style and grace.
I remember the ending of this film vividly. I remember the beautiful yet unsatisfying ambiguity of it. I remember the lights finally lifting and the doors slowly opening, offering that moment of reflection, right at the end. We sat, unblinkingly, and watched the credits climb the screen. We stared silently ahead of us, all swimming in this strange, shared experience; all a little unsure what to make of it. Days later, I feel the same way as I write this. I feel a sense of camaraderie – for this monarch who cared so deeply about her position in the world. I think about the women around me, suffocating themselves into shapewear; weighing themselves morning and evening; measuring their arms and thighs and waists. I think, above all else, about the sheer relevancy of her tale. And, in some ways, I feel a little sad that so little has changed.
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