“Corsage” is the type of film that is better upon reflection than it is upon first viewing. Despite its compelling protagonist and fascinating explorations of taboos, its slow pacing, lack of plot and 19th-century period setting makes the film’s under-two-hour length feel more like four.
“Corsage” is based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire with her husband Emperor Franz Joseph I until her assassination in 1898. However, this film is not historically accurate; Austrian Director Marie Kreutzer built a story based on her interpretation of the Empress, rather than biographical facts.
The female perspective Kreutzer provides is evident in the film’s focus. Rather than exploring the Empress’ life when she was in her prime — and considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe — the movie centers itself around Elisabeth’s fraught entrance into middle age and all of its implications for her sexuality, royal position and personal life.
The Empress’ character is unique in that she is a middle-aged female protagonist whose mental health and sexuality are seen as intrinsic to her sense of self, rather than her family life. As it was in the empress’s time, her refusal to submit to her role as a mother is taboo in a society that sees a woman’s entrance into middle age as indicative of her domestication. The movie focuses heavily on Elisabeth’s struggles with anorexia, depression and heroin addiction, topics which are not often explored in period pieces such as this. These destructive coping mechanisms are given special attention as emblems of Elisabeth’s slowly dissolving identity in the face of her discomfort with middle age. Overall, “Corsage” is largely an exploration of the psychological trauma that results from aging in a society that gives value to women solely based on their looks and youth.
Visually dark, and filled with the brown fabrics, deep green forests and long empty hallways of the House of Habsburg’s Austria, the film invokes a claustrophobic reaction due to the gloom and a feeling of loneliness as we watch the Empress take her solitary meals and baths. This was a genius use of set design and costuming to bring the audience into the confined world of a 19th-century European royal, showing the interior state of the Empress along with the reasons for these moods.
The corsage, better known to Americans as a corset, is the overarching symbol of the film. The Empress is repeatedly shown yelling at her ladies in waiting and friends to pull it tighter both to have the disproportionate hourglass beauty standard that was popular at the time and as a sort of self-harm. The audience realizes that Elisabeth lives in a society which has encouraged her to wear this garment since her marriage at 17. She was trapped before her entrance into adulthood, yet also seems to crave this entrapment to an overly zealous degree, a muddied sort of Stockholm Syndrome wherein cause and effect become one.
Women’s resistance to aging is often portrayed in cinema as a type of hysteria, the archetype being Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” However, Vicky Krieps’ subtle performance of Elisabeth’s contained anger and cynicism reveal a more recognizable state of indefinite anxiety and hopelessness that almost anyone regardless of age or gender can relate to.
I did find Kreutzer’s direction to have a sense of self-importance that made the film seem slightly overdone and pretentious at times. Long holds on Krieps’ face and self-aware dialogue that was obviously trying to make a point (about societal views of women, ideas around sexuality, etc.) drew me out of the film and threw off the pacing, so that the slightly-above-average running time seemed to drag on. A modern, dramatic instrumental soundtrack, when coupled with the period, felt anachronistic. Kreutzer does not quite nail the amusing irony that can occur when the atmosphere of images contrasts with sound, done well in films such as Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”
The suffocation of 19th-century Austrian aristocratic society, lack of narrative plot and understated acting will not entertain you to the degree Hollywood films usually do. Additionally, as many period pieces do, “Corsage” has a sense of reverence towards itself, especially its ending, that I am not entirely sure it merits. However, I would recommend the film to any movie lover, especially if you are in the mood for a heavier piece of cinema that takes both stamina and analysis to reveal its complete value.
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