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TIFF Review: Cinematically Striking Treasures of “Corsage” Are Cold to the Touch

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 18th, 2022

Film poster: “Corsage”

Corsage (Marie Kreutzer, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

There is much to admire in director Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, her fanciful take on Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s forty-first year, chief among its cinematic treasures the performance of Vicky Krieps (Bergman Island) in the lead. She plays her part with near-constant rage simmering just below the surface of restrained gentility, portraying a woman angry at her powerless place among the powerful. Krieps’ vital energy is beautifully complemented by the work of Judith Kaufmann (The Audition), whose cinematography looks both period-appropriate and very modern (unlike the music, which is purposefully anachronistic). The film is a glorious work of art, yet surprisingly cold to the touch. Despite the emotions frequently on display, it all feels very clinical.

The wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth (familiarly known as “Sisi”) led a life marked by her personal struggle to adapt to the restrictions of court and ceremony. Renowned for her beauty, she would perhaps have preferred to be celebrated as much for her wit and wisdom, though as presented here she also has no shortage of vanity. We follow her on a journey of self-discovery and rebellion as she throws herself into the void of uncertainty that is the future. Little does she know that she will be assassinated two decades later by an Italian anarchist. Based on Corsage, she no doubt might welcome the blow.

Vicky Krieps in CORSAGE ©IFC Films/Courtesy of TIFF

We begin shortly before her fortieth birthday, as she and Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister, Adam and Evelyn) attend an event at which she promptly faints. As it turns out, this is just her way of getting out of doing something that bores her terribly. She’d rather hang out with her favorite cousin Ludwig (Manuel Rubey, Das dunkle Paradies)—as in Bavaria’s King Ludwig II (or the “mad” king who built the lovely Castle Neuschwanstein—than do anything remotely formal. And so, soon after her birthday celebration, she heads off to England to visit her sister, the better to escape arguments with Franz Joseph over the dual monarchy with Hungary or parenting issues, adult son Rudolph (Aaron Friesz, Hinterland) in tow.

Throughout the year, as Elisabeth travels to and from Vienna, she interacts with an ensemble of colorful characters, including French inventor Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield, Gagarine), whose motion-picture camera experiments allow Elisabeth a measure of immortality ahead of her time. To note: these, too, are anachronistic, since the film takes place in 1877 and 1878, ten years before what remains of Le Prince’s work, and none of what he produced could have looked like what we see.

l-r: Aaron Friesz, Vicky Krieps, and Regina Fritsch in CORSAGE ©IFC Films/Courtesy of TIFF

That’s not the point, however, since Elisabeth exists outside of her present, trapped within a system that refuses her even a modicum of real agency. How do her captors deal with her mood swings (as they see them)? Why, by prescribing heroin, a harmless drug newly available. That should do it!

The problem, such as it is, at the heart of Corsage lies not with any single element, each of which is finely crafted, but rather in the accumulation of episodic details that amount to little more than their accumulation. Though our sympathies naturally lie with Elisabeth, she can also be nasty and manipulative to those over whom she exercises influence. Though this is understandable, given her otherwise lack of influence, it would be nice for Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet) to further explore the contradiction. The film does a wonderful job presenting a woman out of balance, but there’s little else for us to interrogate beyond that. We gaze as if from a distance. The view from afar is nevertheless quite striking.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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