Empress Elizabeth of Austria struggles to keep things together in the wake of her 40th birthday in Corsage, a beautifully-shot and elegantly-acted costume drama that won star Vicky Krieps a well-deserved award for Best Performance in the Un Certain Regard competition at this years Cannes film festival.
Coming to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after its debut at Cannes, Corsage is less interested in the historical details or a story-driven narrative than getting inside Elizabeth’s head during a key point in her life.
Director Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet) accomplishes that goal effectively, but the leisurely-paced nature of this royal character study is destined to turn many viewers off. And anyone looking for insight into the real-life intrigue and historic events that dominated Elizabeth’s life will leave Corsage sorely disappointed.
Krieps gives a remarkably controlled performance as Elizabeth, quietly revealing the emotional content that never bleeds over into the character’s rigid demeanor.
At 40, Elizabeth has an adult son (Aaron Friesz) who is about to leave for Prague to attend military academy, a pre-teen daughter whose care appears to be mostly left to royal servants, and a quietly combative and perhaps loveless marriage to Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The latter title drives a stake through the marriage at the center of Corsage.
Elizabeth herself doesn’t have much of a permanent home. At the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, she’s a figurehead and subject of gossip isolated from Joseph’s political affairs. She travels extensively throughout Corsage, which largely takes place during the spring and summer months of 1887: to the stables at the Northamptonshire estates in England, where shares a longing glances with riding instructor Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan), and to the Bavarian retreat of her ‘cousin’ Ludwig II (Manuel Rubey), with whom she shares an intimate, knowing relationship.
Corsage was shot on location across Europe at the locations depicted in the movie, many of which are now in decay. They lend the film a chilly, frozen-in-time vibe that parallels Elizabeth’s internal angst, and are beautifully captured by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s widescreen lens.
For fun, the Empress tours the local psychiatric ward, which she claims provides her comfort. Here, she encounters women who have been strapped to their bed or plunged into baths of frigid water. Their crime? Adultery, the doctor tells Elizabeth. Later, the Empress will personally approve of her husband’s new mistress.
Early scenes make it clear that Corsage is not interested in historical accuracy. While at the English stables, she encounters father of cinema Louis La Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), who captures footage of her on his very first camera. Later, a harpist regales the royals with a Rolling Stones cover. There’s a level of artistic license and playful interpretation here, but climactic events may push things too far for some.
For viewers who found Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette too fast-paced, Corsage dials things back a few notches to firmly maintain focus on the internal affairs of its leading royal subject. With its austere filmmaking, gorgeous period recreation, and (especially) intense lead performance by Krieps, Corsage undeniably accomplishes its goal, though it isn’t a film for everyone.