Last year had a lot of moments that were not pleasant for me, not the least of which was turning 40. I don’t like feeling that my youth is now officially behind me and that, at best, I’m at the halfway point of my life. I haven’t accomplished nearly all that I wanted to by this point, not just in my career, but from a personal standpoint. I figured I’d be married with kids by now, and I’m nowhere near that. I frankly wonder if it’ll even happen. There are plenty of reasons for me to have a midlife crisis, even though I’ve already had about three of them to date.
That said, after seeing Austria’s Oscar submission, Corsage, I think I’m handling things quite well. Led by an intriguing performance by Vicky Krieps, this International Feature contender gives an odd literalism to The Who’s classic lyric, “I hope I die before I get old.” For quite a while, its vain sense of fatalism was nearly intolerable, but once I figured out what the movie was (hopefully) trying to say, I found a way to enjoy it.
Krieps plays Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with the film taking place in the year after her 40th birthday. Mildly estranged from her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister), Elisabeth’s life is one of constant boredom, which she alleviates by indulging in just about every vice that passes her fancy. Occasionally she pays attention and affection to her two surviving children (Aaron Friesz and Rosa Hajjaj), but she is careless when it comes to thinking of their best interests. For example, she takes daughter Valerie on a late night walk in the cold, but then deflects any blame when the young girl develops a fever.
The words “duty” and “responsibility” are essentially foreign to her, no matter what language she speaks in a given scene (chiefly German, but English and French as well), evidenced by a state visit to the Hungarian side of the empire, where she feigns a fainting spell to get out of any ceremonial obligations. “A lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep,” she quips, repurposing a line from her husband on military matters to apply to any scandal from the masses that could arise from her behavior.
For the first half of this film, it is honestly curious as to where this is all going. Surely we can’t be meant to root for Elisabeth, right? I mean, this is a period costume drama with a heroine who basically acts as a real-life Madame Bovary, and that’s not something I can ever get behind. It also doesn’t help that pretty much all of her acting out seems to stem from a misplaced insecurity having to do with her age. Basically, she wants to be romantically and sexually desired, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to engage. No better is this illustrated than in a scene where her husband enters her bedroom and she throws the blankets off, revealing her completely nude body. But when Franz Joseph approaches her to make love, she rebuffs him because she doesn’t want another child, so she simply wanks him off. The same holds true for a potential affair with Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan), her riding instructor. On a trip to England, she calls him to her chambers, knowing he is enamored with her, and tells him, “I want to look at you looking at me.” Nearly half of her scenes are in front of her mirror as her hair is meticulously styled. All she cares about is her beauty and the perception of it.
And that’s where the movie finally started to get me. Once you realize that all these maudlin displays are being presented ironically, and that Elisabeth is the antagonist, then things start to click. No one denies her charms or attractiveness, but in multiple attempts to manipulate men sexually, nothing ever happens because either she doesn’t really want it, or because the potential side men respect the fact that she’s married, to the head of state who could easily have them killed, no less. In one scene, her main attendant (Katharina Lorenz) is proposed to by a nobleman, and Elisabeth refuses the bond, because that would mean she couldn’t have her all to herself to keep her company. Literally a woman is being denied a life and family of her own (as she herself approaches 40) to appease the vanity of her employer. By the time this all rings true, the non-diegetic soundtrack by French singer Camille becomes less a morose wail (“Go! Go Away! Go Away!”) than it does a rallying cry for the audience.
And this is where some of the marketing for the film begins to make sense, as it was heavily advertised as defying genre conventions, but the trailer showed none of that. What we saw was a spoiled royal brat trying to cheat on her husband because of ennui. That’s pretty much in line with every Victorian-era romance. Where this film diverges is in the circumstances and the consequences. It’s not a lack of luxury that drives her to other men, but the need for superficial validation. Franz Joseph is concerned with keeping up appearances, and that may make him seem cold at times, but he never withholds his love from Elisabeth. Rather, she withholds it from him, and he tolerates it longer than any reasonable person ought to. Elisabeth protests that she knows what’s best for her children, but the thought of not being the most gorgeous woman in the room makes her literally suicidal, and she cares nothing for the effect her death could have on her offspring. She thinks she’s being rebellious when she flips off a dinner party or demands chocolate to be poured down her throat, but all she’s really doing is taking advantage of the privilege her position grants her, and no one placates her other than the servants who are paid to do so. Everyone else is completely over her bullshit, and that’s something she can’t handle.
That is compelling. She’s given all the glamor and attention of a hero, but she’s quite clearly the villain, and Krieps plays it up with aplomb. Elisabeth wants to be worshipped like a goddess but she galivants like a fool. She lives a life with almost no rules, but what little she does have she refuses to abide by, going so far as to have her lady-in-waiting pose as her at an official function, including wearing the titular corset so tightly that it makes her physically ill, a tightness that Elisabeth herself seems to almost get off on in a masochistic manner.
There’s no mystique to Elisabeth, only an unchecked ego and a sense of entitlement with the political power to exploit it. That frees Krieps to be as funny and in your face as she likes. There are times when it becomes borderline gratuitous, and as I said before, it took a while before I could fully engage with this, and only then it’s on the assumption that the filmmakers intended the character to be a massive Catch U Next Tuesday. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt, because that led to me eventually liking this. If they honestly meant for this version of the Empress to be sympathetic or heroic, then that might honestly plummet the film’s standing to my personal basement. Honestly, I’d rather not know, which is probably the impression I’d have if I ever met a real person who presents themselves the way Elisabeth does here. Either way, I feel a lot better about what middle age might offer me. At least I know not to spend the rest of my life acting like a child.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy costume dramas? What do you think Elisabeth was screaming when she was being filmed? Let me know!