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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/12/2022)

(Review of Corsage)

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria was assassinated in Geneva three years after motion pictures first went on public display. She hated being photographed, however, and there doesn't appear to be any film footage of her in existence. Cinema has since sought to compensate for her absence from the archives with a series of film and television incarnations that has only enhanced her mystique.

Carla Nelsen was the first to play `Sisi' in Rolf Raffé's Kaiserin Elisabeth von Österreich (1921), which was co-written by the empress's niece, Marie Larisch. A decade later, Lil Dagover headlined Adolf Trotz's Elisabeth von Österreich (1931), while Grace Moore gave us a singing Sisi in Josef von Sternberg's The King Steps Out (1936). That same year, Gabrielle Dorziat took over the role for Anatole Litvak's Mayerling, an account of the doomed romance between Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Maria Vetsera that was remade by Terence Young in 1968, with Ava Gardner as the empress. Rachel Gurney guested as the grieving mother in the outstanding BBC series, Fall of Eagles (1974), while Sandra Ceccarelli bore a mother's loss in Robert Dornhelm's teleplay, The Crown Prince (2006).

Diane Keen had essayed the young princess in the opening episode of Fall of Eagles. But Elisabeth's romanticised image was created by the teenage Romy Schneider in Ernst Marischka's Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). Schneider came to detest the role, but she reprised it in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig (1972), which centred on Elisabeth's cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. Hannah Herzsprung performed similar duties in Marie Noëlle and Peter Sehr's Ludwig II (2012).

Subsequent outings have sought to challenge this idealised portrayal, including Christoph Böll's Sissi la valse des cœurs (1991), Xaver Schwarzenberge's Sisi, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe's Sissi, l'impératrice rebelle (both 2004), Sven Bohse and Miguel Alexandre's Sisi (2021), and Florian Cossen and Katrin Gebbe's The Empress (2022), with Vanessa Wagner, Arielle Dombasle, Cristiana Capotondi, Dominique Devenport, and Devrim Lingnau respectively taking the title roles. The latter trio were small-screen productions, but the cinema retains its interest in Elisabeth, with Frauke Finsterwalder's Sisi and I (with Susanne Wolff as the empress) being preceded by Marie Kreutzer's Corsage, which goes on release in the UK after Christmas.

Vienna, December 1877 and Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) is scaring her maids by holding her breath under her bathwater. Tightly bound in a corset to show off her slender waist, Elise attends the opening of the new Kunsthistoriches Museum with husband, Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister), and faints on the red carpet to avoid further questioning from the dignitaries about her health and prolonged absences from the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In her private quarters, she jokes to cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey) about her swooning technique and keeps the emperor waiting when he rings the bell at her closed door. He is devoted to her, but frustrated by the amount of time she spends away from court and by the gossip that her gaunt demeanour generates. Yet, Elise exercises in her private gymnasium and rides her beloved horses every day and has her maids keep precise records of her measurements.

Christmas coincides with Elise's birthday, but she resents being reminded that she is turning 40 and blows out the candles at a celebration dinner without enthusiasm. Instead, she prefers visiting the patients at a nearby asylum and identifies with one woman writhing with fury as she is tethered to a caged bed. Getting up in the night, she takes daughter Marie Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj) riding in the palace grounds, only to be admonished by her husband for risking her health after they had lost Sophie as a toddler. Elise visits her room and orders it to be cleared to avoid it becoming a shrine before agreeing to let Crown Prince Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) accompany her on a New Year trip to Northamptonshire.

She stays with George `Bay' Middleton (Colin Morgan) and spends hours riding with him in the countryside. Elise also consents to be filmed by moving picture pioneer, Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield). But she refuses to listen when Rudolf orders her to be more discreet around Bay and hurts his feelings when he realises that she values him for his compliments rather than as a potential lover. Indeed, she cuts him off completely after surviving a fall on her favourite horse and informs her maids that she no longer wishes to see her sister, Marie Sophie (Lilly Marie Tschörtner), who had chided her for taking such a foolish risk.

Back in Vienna in March 1878, Elise embarrasses Franz Josef by asking him to gaze upon her as she masturbates. But she is put out to discover that her husband is seeing 18 year-old Anna Nahowski (Alice Prosser) and has companions Ida Ferenczy (Jeanne Werner) and Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz) delve into her background. Hiding her face with a scarf, Elise follows Anna around the market and is nettled when she claims it's nice to have advice from an older woman.

Upset by Rudolf being dispatched to Prague, Elise argues with Franz Josef during a fencing session. He refuses to allow her to take Valerie to Hungary and Elise retaliates by jumping from a window. Disappointed to have survived without serious injury, she goes to stay with Ludwig in May 1878. The castle walls are cracked, but Elise enjoys the lack of pomp, as they ride, skinny dip, and dance together. However, she can't entice Ludwig into sleeping with her and he teases her that she doesn't want him, either. Thus, when Marie asks for permission to marry a nobleman who has proposed to her, Elise refuses on the grounds that she needs to keep her, as she is the only person who loves her without reservation.

Still feeling suicidal by July 1878, Elise is dismayed by Valerie's coldness and punishes Franz Josef by denying him access for turning their daughter against her. But Marie is equally cross with her mistress and confides in her diary that Elisabeth is treading a path so narrow that there is only room for one upon it. Her comment proves perceptive, when Elise angers the emperor by flicking the finger at their dinner guests when leaving the table early and he summons her to remind her that her duty is to support him and represent the empire - or there is no reason for her to have fine clothes and live in the lap of luxury.

Elise responds by visiting wounded troops, but embarrasses Valerie by lying down on a bed to share a cigarette with a young soldier. She asks Franz Josef to confide in her about state matters, but he refuses because he still resents having to form the Dual Monarchy because of her penchant for Hungary. He asks if there is anything he can do to make her happy and she asks for a Bengal tiger or an extension to the asylum.

Prescribed heroin to relax her, Elise retreats to her summer residence and dresses a masked Marie in her clothes to avoid doing royal duties. Feeling uninhibited, Elise cuts off her famously long tresses and shows little emotion in dismissing faithful hairdresser, Fanny Feifelik (Alma Hasun). When Franz Josef visits her, Elise claims to feel liberated and encourages him to make love to her. Yet, on her return to Vienna, she also invites Anna to tea and blesses her affair with the emperor because she wants him to be happy and feel loved.

Travelling to Ancona in October 1878, Elise gets an anchor tattoo on her shoulder. She goes sailing and ignores the crew warnings about the sea getting rough. Making her way to the prow, she jumps into the water. As the credits roll, Elise dances in slow motion, with what appears to be a moustache on her upper lip.

Such quirky details stipple the action, but this is nowhere near as anachronistic as Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006), with which it's been lazily compared. Elise and Ludwig might dance to a courtier playing `Help Me Make It Through the Night' on a ukulele, while the Camille Dalmais track `She Was' recurs effectively on the soundtrack alongside a winsome rendition of the mournful Rolling Stones gem, `As Tears Go By'. But details like the tractor seen near the railway station, the modernist doorway, the swimming pool with the chrome-plated handrail, and the anchor tattoo are as punkishly playful as Elise pulling tongues at her doctor and flipping the finger at the guests she has roundly ignored while smoking behind a veil at a state banquet.

Being present at such events, while refusing actively to participate is one of the ways in which Elise rebels against the institution in which she had been entombed since the 23 year-old Franz Josef had insisted on marrying her as a teenager rather than her elder sister. In this regard, comparisons with Pablo Larrain's Spencer (2021) are vaguely valid, as both Elisabeth and Diana grew tired of being the trophy wife whose usefulness was limited to producing a male heir and with the close scrutiny of their physical appearance. In the opening sequences, Elise obsesses over maintaining the slender waist for which she had become famous. In addition to strenuous daily exercise, she also restricted her diet to thin orange slices and beef broth, while ordering her maids to ensure her corsets were excruciatingly tight.

She also sets great store by compliments that affirm her efforts to defy age and justify her status and celebrity. Her despondency when the asylum patient who had called her beautiful no longer recognises her is as palpable as her girlish glee when Louis Le Prince flatters her in order to coax her before his camera. The pair never actually met and Elisabeth disliked being photographed as much as she is shown here losing patience with a portrait painter. But Kreutzer shrewdly uses the faux handcranked monochrome footage to reveal the side of her personality that Elise had been forced to suppress. She revels in the fact that she can be seen speaking her mind without being heard and that she can cavort without having to worry about every gesture being interpreted and used against her.

Interestingly, following this moment of emancipation, Kreutzer and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann employ more handheld imagery in depicting Elise's nomadic pursuit of purpose away from the court where her advice is no longer sought by a husband who has never forgiven her for championing the cause of Hungary and foisting the Dual Monarchy upon him. Kreutzer also allows Elise to binge eat, cut her hair, inject heroin, masturbate in the bath, and coerce a trussed lady-in-waiting to stand in for her at engagements. How much of this is true is open to conjecture, but even entirely fictional incidents such as the climactic leap overboard have a poignant connection with fact, as Elisabeth was carried on to a ferry after she had been stabbed by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni on 10 September 1898. By all accounts, Franz Josef was relieved to learn that she had not committed suicide. So, perhaps she did leap from the fencing room window and had to endure her physician congratulating her on her fortune and fortitude rather than inquiring about her mental health.

Driven to seeking affection and validation from her cousin and her riding instructor in the face of her once-doting husband's passive aggression and her children's curt disapproval, Elisabeth cuts a painfully isolated figure. Yet, as played with incisive intelligence, immersive irony, and impassive impenetrability by the ever-excellent Vicky Krieps (who initiated the project), she can also be petulant and petty. Her treatment of her sister, her confidantes, and her maids (whom she can't tell apart) is often shoddy. Her parenting skills also leave a good deal to be desired, although Kreutzer omits to mention that her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, had refused to allow her to raise older daughters Sophie and Gisela.

The death of the two year-old Sophie in Budapest in 1857 is referenced after Elise takes Valerie for a midnight ride and when she notes that the portrait in her room captures little of her essence. But the complex relationship between Elisabeth and Rudolf is somewhat skirted, perhaps because it has been examined at greater length in recent mini-series. His disdain at her flirting with Bay Middleton (who was based at Althorp as a servant of Earl Spencer and fathered the future wife of Winston Churchill - you couldn't make it up) plays as much a part in Elisabeth's rebellion as Franz Josef's insistence upon her playing solely a ceremonial role in the running of the empire. Indeed, it's Bay's rejection that undermines her conviction in the potency of her beauty and sparks the existential crisis that causes the increasingly peripatetic Elise to contemplate her role, image, and legacy, as well as the value of her sacrifices, as she reaches what was the median age of death for most Austrians in the 1870s.

It proves much easier, however, for Franz Josef to remove his trademark whiskers at the end of a day's ruling than for Elisabeth to shed her regal trappings. She does bare herself for him in a last effort to connect, only for her to cool his ardour by merely offering hand relief after declaring that she's too old to have another child. When Ludwig later refuses her advances, Elise puts it down to his preference for stable boys or a sense of cousinly propriety rather than contemplate the inconsolable prospect that he is genuinely disinterested. Her conviction that beauty is the preserve of the young is confirmed by her formal installation of Anna Nahowski as her husband's mistress.

Costume designer Monika Buttinger and make-up artists Maike Heinlein and Helene Lang make a vital contribution to the physical transformation that accompanies Elise's dereliction of duty. Martin Reiter's production design is equally acute. But Kreutzer is no stranger to this subject matter, having explored society's expectations of modern women in The Ground Beneath My Feet (2019), which followed her previous collaboration with Krieps on another study of shifting self-perception, We Used to Be Cool (2016). In many ways, she has a created a version of Elisabeth that is just as fallacious as Marischka's Sisi. But she prompts us to reassess Europe's first royal superstar and consider the impact that marrying into a dynasty entrenched in tradition might have on the well-being of those who had thought they were entering a fairytale rather than a nightmare.

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