Welcome to the Imperial Dollhouse
After a promisingly off-kilter start, a depiction of the life of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth ends up romanticizing addiction and mental illness.
“Corsage,” the latest example of cinema’s obsession with the lives of royalty, centers on a year in the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Franz Joseph I (he of the late-era, hapless Habsburg line). The film starts off promisingly off-kilter in the way it presents pomp and circumstance, mirroring how the bold and beautiful sovereign pushed against convention. Eventually though, like other such aristocratic entertainments, “Corsage” slips into melodrama and pretentiousness, and its distinctive stylistic touches turn cloying and as mannered as a coronation.
The film’s first few scenes effectively announce how what we’re about to watch will be more than just a regular royal period piece, in the manner of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” In quick succession we get a fake fainting (and a how-to lesson), a moment where Elisabeth looks directly at the camera as she ascends a staircase while a pop ballad plays on the soundtrack, a scene where the Emperor takes off false mutton chops from this face, and a few pessimistic pronouncements from the Empress on how no one loves anyone else.
We also perceive that Elisabeth, as played by Vicky Krieps, is smart, savvy, and restless, while displaying traits of impulsiveness and brattiness as well. One particularly interesting first impression, especially for the modern health-conscious audience, is the fact that she was acutely concerned with her weight and conscientious of the public’s perception of her bodily fluctuations, so much so that she eats very little and uses gymnastic rings to remain slim as she turns 40.
Gradually, we come to realize that Elisabeth is struggling with more than a mid-life crisis: she exhibits behavior which hints at psychological problems, like depression, and even harbors a death wish. As a figurehead, she’s not given much to do but look great in ceremonial clothing, so our sympathies are with her as she chafes against decorum.
Before the movie reaches the one-hour mark, she becomes jealous of one of her husband’s lovers (despite much flirting with several men on her part) and the character starts to lose her sly spark. The movie, too, begins to drag. The inclusion of pop songs grows twee, and an attempt at a surreal moment, as Elisabeth towers over miniature furniture and her head nearly hits the ceiling, falls flat and obvious as a dollhouse metaphor.
Where “Corsage” excels is in its portrayal of the queen’s relationship with her ladies-in-waiting, specifically her closest consort Marie (Katharina Lorenz). Although the Empress denies a request by Marie to get married, the confidante remains faithful to Elisabeth and even assumes more duties as the Queen becomes addicted to heroin — her doctor deeming it “completely harmless.” A great scene in the back half of the film involves Elisabeth cutting off her long, luxurious locks of hair, while possibly under the influence, and her retinue’s various reactions to the haircut.
“Corsage” also stands out in its art direction and props. A bare corridor between the Emperor and Empress’s respective rooms highlights the almost comical gulf between the two strong personalities, with the occasional anachronistic appearance of an object, like a modern mop and bucket, pleasantly jolting. The choice to have many of the palaces seen in the movie appear crumbling and paint-peeled is also arresting, reinforcing the decline of monarchies in the late 19th century.
Ms. Krieps, who more than held her own against Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread,” makes for a convincing, imperious Empress, though not even her intelligence and charm can transcend some of the more morose and redundant aspects of the script. With much of the movie alternating between scenes of moodiness and whimsy, one wonders why the filmmakers chose this period in her life to focus on.
There are a few stray mentions of Sarajevo, including during a fantastic scene where she asks her husband about the occupation at the dinner table, but we never get more context on what’s happening beyond her pampered existence. Perhaps writer and director Marie Kreutzer intended the viewer to feel as isolated from the real world as Elisabeth was, but it makes for a very limiting historical experience.
While “Corsage” makes overtures to exploring the treatment of mental illness in the late 1800s, it never delves deeply during scenes where Elisabeth visits an asylum to interact with patients. And it always rather blatantly ties these scenes to her own personal struggles. Yet I was still astonished by the final scene, in which my earlier suspicions that the movie was romanticizing addiction and mental health issues were confirmed.
When the movie fades to black, there is no textual epilogue informing viewers that the Empress went on to live for another 20 years, that she endured her son’s suicide, that she continued to travel across the globe before her death. Whether you’re a fan of royal entertainments or not, Elisabeth’s legacy deserves better.