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Vicky Krieps was born for roles like Corsage's Sissi
Film review

Vicky Krieps was born for roles like Corsage's Sissi

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 4 min. 22.09.2022
For a movie so reliant on Krieps’ stellar performance, the runtime sometimes feels a little too long, says Tom Einarsson
Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps plays the leading role
Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps plays the leading role
Photo credit: Alamode Film/Samsa Film

Neither narratively conventional nor entirely historical, Corsage prefers to present itself as a series of melancholic snapshots of an Empress in a golden cage. Directed by Marie Kreutzer and starring Luxembourg’s own Vicky Krieps in the leading role, the film is almost like an anti-biopic. 

History seems all but frozen for Krieps’ character, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary in the late 1870s. Elisabeth lives in cold and starkly bare rooms of palaces and country houses with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. On the eve of her 40th birthday, her life in perpetual royal stasis sees a deep-seated alienation creep up on her. 

Taking place over the years 1877 to 1878, Elisabeth’s carefully maintained facade starts to crack. She cares little for ceremony and stiff codes of conduct and takes every opportunity she gets to escape through uncouth humour and the company of men that aren’t her husband. But her flirtations do not go unnoticed: after her son Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, tells her that she’s grown too close to her riding instructor, we see another nail hammered into the velvet-lined coffin. 

But this is only one of many minor incidents which cumulatively send Elisabeth over the psychological edge. The film is peppered with many such moments - micro-humiliations and awkward moments of intense rigidity - which together represent a tightening of the proverbial corsage. Again and again, Elisabeth chafes against her role, being both the centre of attention and so profoundly bored that her cosy life becomes all but unbearable. 

Krieps was born for roles like this: deftly switching between perfect German, French, English and even a little Hungarian, her performance is defined not just by grand rebellious gestures, but also lingering looks of resentment and an underlying spirit of defiance. 

Vicky Krieps’ theatrical talents, carefully eloquent language, mannerisms and handling of emotionally delicate situations instantly imbue Corsage’s chilly atmosphere with a uniquely Luxembourgish twist

For once, Empress Sissi is not portrayed as a romanticised queen of well-mannered elegance, but rather has her personage masterfully adopted so as to re-examine a historical character usually relegated to kitsch souvenirs sold on Viennese street corners. As with her marriage to Franz Joseph, there is no romance whatsoever in Elisabeth’s courtly life. 

Corsage doesn’t pretend to be historically accurate - or a conventional biopic for that matter. Given the film’s narrative and editing style, whereby scenes are only loosely tied together by Elisabeth’s unravelling psyche, it becomes a collage of nominally disconnected moments which, when put together, portray slow-motion mental collapse. 

The story takes place over a year, more or less, and doesn’t preoccupy itself with 19th century Austro-Hungarian politics. Under Kreutzer and Krieps’ creative direction there are glaring anachronisms which boldly point out that Corsage is a re-imagining rather than historical document put to film. 

Telephones adorn tables, some doors have strangely modern-looking handles and a tractor unceremoniously plods along a country road late in the film’s run time. What may come across as grievous oversights actually place the film in a category of its own as an anti-biopic much more interested in women’s roles throughout history rather than overly strict mise-en-scène. 

Corsage becomes a character study of a semi-fictional Elisabeth through 21st century eyes. The film debuted at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category, which highlights films with non-traditional styles and narratives - to which Corsage would certainly count given its temporal anachronisms. But with the unconventional narrative, which spans over a year and connects little moments into a bigger picture, comes a certain sense of uneven momentum. 

Given that scenes may jump ahead a few weeks or months in time, it’s sometimes a little hard to grasp where in the story’s arc the viewer is. Corsage quickly settles into an uneven pace, leaving viewers wondering when the climax is going to come - or if there’s going to be one. 

The film’s atmosphere, it goes without saying, is stifling to a degree that makes you want to squirm in your seat a little. And for a movie so reliant on Krieps’ stellar performance, the runtime sometimes feels a little too long for one built on a foundation of mental anguish and lengthy and painful moments where things are best left unsaid. 

But this is only a minor gripe for a film that dares to approach biopic cinema differently. There are genuinely beautiful scenes - both in terms of composition and performance - that convey a melancholia so trenchant that it risks ruining the rest of your day if it weren’t for Krieps’ understated charisma. 

And it’s always a joy to see the best of Luxembourg at the fore: Vicky Krieps’ theatrical talents, carefully eloquent language, mannerisms and handling of emotionally delicate situations instantly imbue Corsage’s chilly atmosphere with a uniquely Luxembourgish twist.


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