Corsage: Shake It Loose and Let It Fall, by David Bax
There’s no doubt that Austria is a beautiful place. I mean, I’ve never been there but a quick Google image search returns a bounty of verdant mountains and glimmering lakes. Marie Kreutzer, though, in directing Corsage, her very highly fictionalized biographical picture about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, kicks the action off on a wet, gray and altogether shitty day in the Alpine country and then, with cinematographer Judith Kaufmann, shoots it with a queasy handheld camera. It’s Christmas Eve in 1877. It’s the Empress’ birthday. She’s 40 years old.
But then, as soon as she’s free of her ceremonial duties, the empress (Vicky Krieps) and her ladies in waiting rush up the palace stairs in glorious slow motion accompanied by gorgeous music. Not unlike Pablo Larraín‘s Spencer from last year, Corsage is an interior film about the life of a royal woman whose life feels no less like a trap for being full of luxury. Thus the movie is equal parts beautiful and haunting.
Elisabeth’s life is also largely about pretending. Her clothes and make-up and more or less all of her royal duties have to do with putting on a show, cutting the figure the crown’s subjects must be shown. Even the Emperor (Florian Teichtmeister, wonderful), who at least gets to do some actual governing, is not free from the demands of the farce. A shot of him removing fake mutton chops after a public appearance like an actor backstage is an early sign that Corsage has a strong sense of humor.
Krieps is often hilarious as well but that’s only one shade of her undeniable performance, perhaps a peak in a career that’s full of them. Even as Elisabeth’s growing bitterness at her own limited but extravagant position in life makes her act more and more like a petulant teen, you will find yourself captivated by her wry unhappiness, hanging on her every angry huff and sigh.
Of course, Elisabeth is no child. It’s not happenstance that the movie starts on her 40th birthday. Time is moving forward and she’s getting older. Anachronisms peek into the frame here and there; we even see her captured with a motion picture camera, giving us an image of an image of an actor playing someone who died before any of us was born. From our point of view, it’s a connection to the past. From Elisabeth’s it’s a terrifying vision of a future that doesn’t know or need her. Modernity is creeping in and death is coming with it.
Can anyone blame Elisabeth for being bummed out? Corsage is unflinching in its depiction of depression but–like most of us, I would venture–it’s fascinated by the shape it can take in a person whose life offers them so much indulgence. Despair and privilege can lead Elisabeth to be cruel but there’s an indisputable allure in letting go of everything you don’t want and damning the consequences.