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'Corsage' Review: Eat Your Heart Out Peter Morgan

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | November 25, 2022 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | November 25, 2022 |


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The first thing you need to do when seeing Corsage is to realize that every single anachronism in the production design is intentional. They show up subtly throughout the runtime: Sparse and functional concrete hallways connecting Imperial rooms decorated in Rococo gildings, emergency exit doors complete with push bars, rooms illuminated with halogen lights and lamps that could not work with gas or oil, tractors too small that clearly operate on oil and not coal, telephone lines, plastic mop buckets, and a 50s’ style cruise ship. Corsage deliberately interrupts the expectations we, the normie audience, place upon period pieces, the kind of period pieces our media keeps churning out about a select group of historical figures. Figures like Empress Sisi of Austria.

Corsage subverts those expectations almost as if writer and director Marie Kreutzer was maliciously complying with the checklist for a period drama: The gowns and dresses are sumptuous and probably accurate for the times, but they become progressively less elaborate. Unlike other films set in the 19th Century, Vicky Krieps’ Sisi actually keeps her auburn locks in a carefully devised braid (which she later chops off). We see her transit through palaces and hunting lodges, but they are almost always worn down, plagued by visible mold, peeling wallpaper, humidity cracks, and clear signs of post-war refurbishing. In sum, the exact opposite of what you would expect from a movie set in one of history’s fanciest Empires at one of its high points.

A less subtle writer would’ve taken all these signs of decay to hammer in a clear symbolism: Corsage covers the 40th year of Empress Sisi, between 1877 and 1878, the story of a woman feeling dejected and in decay, exactly 40 years away from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Kreutzer is not an unsubtle filmmaker. She is not here to tell us the story of a woman entering her twilight years, and Kreutzer forefronts the absurdity that a woman in her 40s could be considered to be aging, more so one that looks like Vicky Krieps. Because first, this is a movie that forefronts the social absurd that is the conception society has of women over 40, whether in the very 19th Century, very Catholic and very Conservative Viennese Court, or in this day and age.

We see Sisi as a woman exasperated by everyone’s expectations that she finally reins in her wild oats. She still feels alive, desirable, sensual and sexual, practicing calisthenics in her room, spending hours riding in her beloved horse (that’s a hint to an eventual tragedy in that regard), enmeshed with a younger lover (Colin Morgan) and both fascinated and queasy about technological breakthroughs. In particular, photography and the moving pictures, as introduced to her by a fictionalized version of Louis Le Prince, as played by Finnegan Oldfield (in reality, there is absolutely no way they were ever in the same room, and in 1878 he was still years away from his findings). But on the contrary, her environment can only process the Empress by denying her: Rudolf, her only son (Aaron Friesz) holds back his love to force her away from her love affair (which is very ironic considering how he would die a few years later). Her youngest, Marie Valier, keeps chastising her own mother for not acting dignified and serene, though she’s barely ten. And Franz Joseph, the man she once married in a rare Imperial love match, no longer feels sexually attracted to her. As a matter of fact, he might not be very much into sex at all; his rumored affair with a young countess is implied to be mostly platonic.

But the worst part, the real soul-crusher, are all the courtiers and people celebrating her for her beauty, and what a miracle it is that she remains this beautiful at her age, and hopefully she will remain just as beautiful for years to come, or as beautiful as she possibly can (later on, a scene will show her during a health checkup, where the patronizing doctor reminds her that the life expectancy of her female subjects is only … forty years). We see Krieps layering every indignancy, every backhanded insult, and every frustration in the kind of facial expressions of a woman that has learned how to suppress everything inside, but is also … too old for that shit. I have never seen an actress transform herself into a well-manufactured pressure cooker that is four or five cycles away from exploding and taking with itself the kitchen and half the house.

Unlike another take on Empress Sisi I reviewed recently, and pretty much every other depiction of the Kaiserin, Corsage succeeds in ridding itself from the romanticized myth. Just like that metaphor of the pressure cooker, Marie Kreutzer takes down the whole artifice of the period piece with her. She chooses a radical thesis: In order to properly get at the humanity of Sisi, it’s necessary to question the aesthetical constraints imposed by the period piece. Kreutzer does it by actively mocking it (one of the official posters has Krieps as Sisi dressed to the nines and giving the finger in a white glove). The anachronisms and decayed settings interrogate us about our own obsession with these Great Figures on a purely aesthetic level, our masturbatory fixation with pomp and circumstance and spectacle which turns these people basically into glorified non-playable characters. Soap opera objects that, absurdly, are also supposed to be the foundation of an entire Empire’s sense of identity. Back then, they also happened to have actual political power. Is it any wonder it all came tumbling down, dragging down millions of their own subjects? In that regard, why are we so obsessed about this tragic woman who was only a satellite in the orbit of the worst of the great men?

Corsage interrogates us as an audience, in our obsession with these soap operas, which we only regard as being of a more heightened substance because they involve people who, we are told, come from a higher station. Perhaps without being deliberate about it, Corsage puts The Crown and Peter Morgan under the spotlight, how he has done nothing but lipstick on a bunch of piggish people that have never contributed anything but a salacious soap-opera. Diana and Sisi are frighteningly similar, down to their eating disorders, closeness to marginalized subjects, famous beauty, and myth. But unlike Peter Morgan, Marie Kreutzer and Vicky Krieps seem to actually care for their subject.

Corsage premieres Stateside on December 23.