Film & Television

Elisabeth, The Austrian Empire’s “It Girl”
— ‘Corsage’ and ‘The Empress’

Sixty may be the new 40. But, does anyone really appreciate turning 40?

According to the epic period drama Corsage, Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria certainly had an opinion about it. Early in the film, Elisabeth asserts that, “At age 40, a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud.”

It’s 1877, and the Empress is no longer the vibrant young beauty Emperor Franz Josef brought home to Vienna. Thanks perhaps to the precursor of today’s brutal tabloids (just ask the Windsors about them), rumors have circulated that Elisabeth is struggling with her weight. She picks at her food, exercises compulsively, and orders her maids to string her corset (the “corsage” of the title) ever tighter.

Corsage is a fictionalized reimagining of a year in Empress Elisabeth’s life, written and directed by Marie Kreutzer. Although much of the film is based on historical events, there are contemporary touches — modern music, albeit arranged for the harp in classical style; the odd expression; and a parting gesture Sisi extends to her dinner guests that leaves little to the imagination. Kreutzer stops short of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Netflix’s The Great, but she does embrace a certain amount of artistic license that keeps Elisabeth’s life at court from becoming a bore.

Elisabeth, however, is beyond bored. As her husband reminds her, “It’s my duty to control the fate of our empire. Your duty is merely to represent. That’s what I chose you for; that’s what you’re here for.” She has provided Austria with a crown prince, as well as a younger princess (both of whom find her unconventional behavior deeply embarrassing). Overall, however, Sisi is aimless, purposeless, and humorless — well, most of the time.

She does find amusement in fainting on cue at public events, wildly aggressive horseback riding, near constant travel, a host of inappropriate lovers, and a new invention that captures moving pictures. She’s particularly attracted to the camera’s inability to record sound. She can scream all she likes, and no one will ever know.

“She’s like a book to me,” complains one of her loyal ladies in waiting. “A riddle on every page.”

If the court finds Elisabeth puzzling, we find her irresistible, thanks to Kreutzer’s brilliant casting. Luxembourger Vicky Krieps, best known in the U.S. as Alma, the fashion house muse (and lover) of 2017’s The Phantom Thread, embodies an energized stillness that captures and holds the attention, regardless of what her Elisabeth is doing — and especially when the empress appears to be doing nothing. The rest of the cast is excellent. But, the film is a showcase for Krieps, who took home the award for Best Performance, “Un Certain Regard,” from Cannes.

You’ll find another fine performance — several actually — in the Netflix series The Empress. Written by Katharina Eyssen (with Bernd Lange, Janna Maria Nandzik, and Lena Stahl), and directed by Katrin Gebbe and Florian Cossen, The Empress provides an origin story for Corsage. If Elisabeth is grieving her lost youth, it’s on full display here.

The Empress begins at the beginning. Franz Josef has been persuaded (in other words, ordered) to woo and marry Duchess Helene von Wittelsbach of Bavaria, a respectful and dutiful young princess, who happens to be his first cousin. However, on the visit that is to mark his engagement, he falls instead for her younger, more rebellious sister Elisabeth, who — natürlich — is also his first cousin. Clever and lovely, but with a definite wild streak, Sisi is not what the Emperor’s mother has in mind.

Early scenes in The Empress’s six-episode first season are quite heavy on romance, with the sexy edge that Netflix, being a subscription service, can deliver. (Think Bridgerton, but in German.) However, politics both inside and outside the Austrian court soon interfere. There is widespread unrest, multiple plots to overthrow the emperor and royal family, and a looming war with Russia. Meanwhile, Elisabeth bristles at the rules and limitations she encounters as “God’s chosen empress.”

As in Corsage, the cast here is quite wonderful. Devrim Lingnau is compelling as Elisabeth; Phillip Froissant is dashing and idealistic as Franz Josef; and Johannes Nussbaum is appropriately snakelike as the emperor’s younger brother and would-be rival Archduke Maximillan. The series’s standout is Melika Foroutan as Elisabeth’s ruthless mother-in-law Sophia. When Elisabeth doesn’t fulfill Sophia’s expectations, the dowager tells her son that their romance was but “a beautiful dream,” and encourages him to divorce and find a more suitable consort.

Whether depicted at 16 or at 40, Empress Elisabeth, who in real life was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898 (this is not a spoiler; it’s European history), was very much a woman limited by the confines of her time. But, it’s difficult to watch either Corsage or The Empress without drawing parallels between her experience and that of more recent royals, like Princess Diana or Duchess Meghan. On the one hand, Elisabeth was held up to an almost unbearable level of scrutiny by both the palace and the public. On the other, she was expected to keep her opinions (that is, if she even had any) to herself.

Both the movie and the series dramatize the despair and depression that naturally follows when a woman is viewed as a spouse, a breeder, a figurehead, and a fashion plate rather than a person.

“Nobody loves nobody,” the older Elisabeth observes with philosophical melancholy. “Everybody loves what he wants from others. And we love anybody who loves in us that which we would like to be.”

Corsage is playing at select cinemas.

The Empress is available to stream on Netflix.

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